Syria's allies warn of retaliation for Israeli airstrikes, but threats likely hollow

Syria and Iran threatened to retaliate against Israel for its strikes on Syrian territory while Hezbollah deemed the attacks 'barbaric aggression,' but escalation is in no one's interests.

Baz Ratner/REUTERS
An Israeli military jeep drives near the Israeli-Lebanese border close to the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona Jan. 31, 2013.

Syria and Iran have threatened retaliation against Israel for a reported strike or pair of strikes in Syrian territory yesterday, but it is widely seen as counter to their interests to follow such bellicose rhetoric with concrete action.

Hezbollah slammed the attack today as “barbaric aggression,” but the Lebanese Shiite militant group is seen as unlikely to risk a new war with Israel when one of its chief backers, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is fighting for his regime’s survival and is in no position to engage Israel. Iran, which also backs Hezbollah and could use it as a proxy to retaliate against Israel, is likewise seen as loath to play that card and risk losing one of its best deterrents against an Israeli attack.

“I don’t think any of the sides are willing to risk a war at this time,” says Timur Goksel, a commentator based in Beirut, Lebanon, who served with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon between 1979 and 2003. “If there’s going to be another war, it will more likely be related to an attack on Iran, not on an arms convoy or a facility in Syria.”

But the mutual deterrence that has kept Hezbollah from engaging in a fresh war with Israel, potentially on behalf of Iran or Syria, appears increasingly tenuous.

Israeli 'game changers'

Israeli officials have remained tight-lipped about the reports of military action, but analysts say it was likely motivated by both a sense of growing urgency and a calculation that neither Syria nor Hezbollah would retaliate.

“I have a distinct feeling that something happened in Syria that increased or heightened the threat perception in Jerusalem as well as in Washington,” says Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “I think the Israeli view is probably that Hezbollah and Syria are weak, with little likelihood of response or escalation.”

Amid official Israeli silence, there is still uncertainty as to the actual target of last night’s airstrike. Numerous reports cite unidentified US and Israeli sources claiming that the attack targeted a convoy carrying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The weapons were variously reported as SA-17 mobile medium-range antiaircraft missiles, Yakhont anti-ship missiles, or Scud short-range ballistic missiles. All three weapon systems are regarded as “game changers” in the Israeli context because of the threat they pose to Israeli aircraft, shipping, and populated areas respectively. In particular, the SA-17 missiles could limit the ability of Israeli jets to monitor Hezbollah and Syrian weapons sites.

However, Syria claims that the airstrike targeted a research facility that belongs to the Scientific Studies and Research Center, a government-run agency that is suspected of spearheading Syria's weapons development program. Israeli Lt. Col. Dany Shoham (ret.), a specialist in chemical and biological warfare who served in Israel’s Ministry of Defense in the 1990s, says it’s possible that that facility was developing or upgrading components related to chemical weapons.

The facility is located in Jermaya, five miles from central Damascus, and is surrounded to the north, east, and west by sprawling military bases for the elite Republican Guards unit.

Israel last staged a raid inside Syria in September 2007 when it targeted a suspected nuclear facility near Deir ez-Zor in the northeast. If the target of yesterday’s airstrike was indeed a Hezbollah arms convoy in transit across the border with Lebanon, it would be the first time that Israel has undertaken such a step.

The fact that Hezbollah ignored that report and instead publicly endorsed the Syrian claim that a military research center was targeted suggests that the militant group is not planning to retaliate against Israel.

But Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, warned that his country may strike back. Damascus has "the option and the surprise to retaliate," he said, according to The Associated Press, but declined to give a time frame.

'Unacceptable,' but bearable

Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian supreme leader’s top foreign-policy adviser, declared over the weekend that “an attack on Syria is considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.” 

As one of Syria's closest allies in the region, Iran is locked into the geopolitical game as leader of an axis of resistance against Israel and the United States.

But Iranian news organizations have signaled Iran's disinterest in further escalation by highlighting Russia's firm response that such an attack was "unacceptable," but giving little indication of an Iranian reaction.

Iran arguably has much more at stake in Syria than Russia, after using the Assad regime for decades as an instrument to spread its own influence and to arm allies like Hezbollah and Hamas as front-line proxies in their fight against Israel.

Fiery rhetoric against the "Zionist regime" and injustice against Palestinians is a daily ritual in Iran. Yet Fars News merely reported today that Iran's parliament would take up regional issues and Syria on Feb. 3, and that Iranian and European Union ambassadors had recently met in Beirut.

However, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian warned today that the strike will have significant implications for the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, according to AP.

Deterrence likely to hold

Since the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006, the Lebanese-Israeli border has witnessed its longest period of calm since the late 1960s. However, the 2006 war ended inconclusively, and since then both sides have been preparing for the possibility of a fresh encounter.

Israel has reorganized and retrained its forces to better fight a nonconventional foe like Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, with the backing of Iran and Syria, has undergone a massive recruitment program and is believed to have stocked its arsenal with new and improved weapons and invested more heavily in electronic warfare capabilities.

While neither party has shown any willingness to plunge into fresh fighting, the strategic ramifications of the war in Syria on the Middle East in general – and the Hezbollah-Israel dynamic in particular – could yet complicate the mutual deterrence.

In September, Hezbollah said it had flown a reconnaissance drone over southern Israel, which initially went undetected by the Israeli military before being shot down. It was the deepest-ever penetration of a Hezbollah-operated drone into Israeli air space and the first time the group had dispatched a drone into Israel since 2006. Israel, too, has shown unusual assertiveness if it indeed attacked Syrian soil yesterday.

But for now, the threat of massive destruction on both sides of the border in the event of another war suggests that the calculus that has helped maintain calm since 2006 will continue to hold, analysts say.

* Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.

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