Israel sends Middle East a message with Syrian airstrike

Analysts say Israel may now believe it can attack Iran's nuclear facilities without reprisal.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the event that everyone here – and no one – is talking about.

Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied the target of its Sept. 6 airstrike in Syria. Was it, as some media outlets reported, an attack on the run-of-the-mill munitions being transferred through Syria on their way to Hizbullah, or was it a strike on nuclear components supplied by North Korea?

Either way, Israel's chief of military intelligence announced that Israel's deterrence had "been restored."

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But unusually quiet, regional analysts note, are moderate Arab states and international players who would, in the past, have been quick to condemn any act of Israeli aggression against a neighbor.

Amid the state-imposed silence from officialdom here on what exactly Israeli bombs struck and why (Israelis are discussing it only on the basis of leaks in Washington), observers see several key messages.

First, Israel was able to strike at Syria without suffering any consequences, military or diplomatic. Second, Israel might take steps to fulfill one of its ultimate security objectives, which is to prevent other countries in the Middle East from obtaining nuclear capability, especially those overtly hostile to Israel. Third, if a Syrian nuclear installation can be targeted by Israel without any international outcry – and with the tacit backing of allies in the US and Turkey – Iran's nuclear facilities are looking more likely than ever to be next.

"Some analysts think that it's a message to the Iranian regime that Israel can strike anywhere in the region. And it shows us the extent of cooperation between Israel and Turkey, because Turkey didn't condemn the attacks until now," says Emad Gad, an expert in Israeli affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Israel dropped fuel tanks in Turkey near their border with Syria as part of the operation.

"I think some Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and some other circles felt happy about the Israeli strike. Still, the main message is to the Syrian side," Dr. Gad says, pointing to Israel's frustration over Syria's assistance to Hizbullah, Hamas, and other Palestinian militant factions operating in Syria. Many in Egypt and elsewhere in the region see Israel's strike, when put in the context of the international community's standoff with Iran, as a step toward a bigger confrontation.

"We are heading toward what will probably be a European-US strike targeting the Iranian project, and people here are afraid of what the Iranian reaction will be," he adds. "It will be hard for them to hit America, and so anything that's seen as an American installation in the region could be a target."

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born, Tel Aviv-based analyst and author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," says the muted reaction to Israel's strike has Iran quite concerned.

"What worries Iran most is that the international community hasn't condemned Israel," says Mr. Javedanfar. "If they're not saying anything about Syria, and Syria's not as much on the outs, what does it say for Iran?"

He says the operation had several goals in mind. "One, get Iran to come back and start negotiating seriously and put better offers on the table. Two, restore Israel's deterrence to what it was before last year's war with Lebanon. I think it has done that, in a big way, because Syria has not responded."

Not so fast, others say. Deterrence, one of the most important concepts in Israeli defense, is also one of its most amorphous. The Haaretz newspaper Tuesday criticized Israel's Director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, for having declared Israel's deterrent capability restored in one fell swoop.

"A successful strike – if it did occur – could serve as a statement: anyone who places nuclear weapons near Israel's borders or within striking distances will have to pay a price," the paper's editorial read. But, it continued, "Israel's deterrence is measured day in and day out in the western Negev as well. Hundreds of Qassam rockets from Gaza strike the region every month, with Israel unable to come up with a deterrent response."

All of this comes at a time when there seemed to be increased signs of hope for an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. The possibility of the two countries revisiting the negotiating table, abandoned more than seven years ago, has been in the offing in recent months, though the Bush administration has been encouraging Israel to focus on the Palestinian peace track instead.

Hebrew University professor Moshe Maoz, a supporter of the potential for Israeli-Syrian peace, worries that a strike could further radicalize Syria.

"This could restore deterrence, sure, but it might further undermine the chances of peace with Syria, and push them closer to the Shiite axis," he says. "Israel is pushing Syria, along with Bush, into the hands of Iran, by refusing to talk to them." In fact, some other Iran analysts say Israel's strike was a kind of victory for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, who has been able to turn to Syria sanctimoniously and say that his " 'advice' about Israel not wanting peace was true all along," Javedanfar explains.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters this week that he was ready to make peace with Syria if the conditions ripen, and that there was no reason to rule out dialogue.

"The Israeli deterrent track has always been kind of divorced from the political track, and they're always willing to put one ahead of the other if they think it's something urgent," says Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They obviously knew about this site for a long time; they didn't discover it last week. It underlines a point that everyone knew: Israel doesn't want other countries to acquire nuclear weapons and it will do whatever it thinks is necessary to stop it," he adds.

"But no one knows what the Syrians were up to," he says. "People are wondering if it was a very nascent nuclear program and no one wants to see that."

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