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Israel and Syria traded fire across their border today in the third such incident in a week. Although Israel has not taken sides in Syria's civil war, it has been explicit that it is willing to take drastic measures to ensure that, amid Syria's chaos, advanced weapons do not drift unnoticed into the hands of the anti-Israel militant group and Damascus-ally Hezbollah.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was "preparing for every scenario" and that "we will act to ensure the security interest of Israel's citizens in the future as well," Reuters reports. The Israeli military confirmed today that their soldiers "returned precise fire" after Syria fired on Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. Israel annexed the land in 1981, while Syria continues to claim it, leaving the border a cease-fire line. (Editor's Note: This article was amended to clarify the status of the Golan Heights dispute.)
The Times of Israel reports that the Syrian Army stated that its troops "destroyed" an Israeli military vehicle, along with those in it, but that the Israel Defense Forces spokesman's office reported that a vehicle was "hit by light weapons fire, causing slight damage to the vehicle." It was the first time that the Syrian Army acknowledged firing across the border into Israel since the outbreak of civil war.
The Times of Israel posits that the acknowledgement was "an attempt by President Bashar [al-Assad]'s regime to project toughness following three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus" in the last month to which it did not retaliate.
Until civil war erupted in Syria, the border had been relatively quiet since 1973, the last time Israel and Syria fought a war. Even now, Israel's involvement has little to do with the Syrian government itself, but with the possibility of an uptick in the number of weapons bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a client of Iran, and one of the greatest threats to Israel.
Michael Herzog, a former Israeli defense ministry chief of staff and current fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote following an Israeli airstrike near Damascus earlier this month that Israel's "actions were driven not by ambitions to shape Syria's future, but by concerns about the strategic balance between itself and the Hezbollah-Iran axis."
Israeli decision-makers are under no illusion that they can elicit a desirable outcome in Syria. Instead, Israel prefers to keep a low profile and focus on other pressing challenges, paramount among them Iran's drive towards nuclear weapons. Israeli actions in Syria are therefore focused on addressing direct threats to its security, particularly the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah.
The war in Syria has escalated this problem since it presented Hezbollah with the opportunity to upgrade its already formidable arsenal of over 60,000 rockets by acquiring more sophisticated weapons from Syria's stocks. Syria's huge arsenal includes hundreds of tonnes of chemical agents, tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, radars and more. Assad, deeply indebted to Iran and Hezbollah for their support, now feels obligated to allow the transfer of such weapons.
While the world is rightly focused on Syria's chemical weapons, Israel is no less concerned about conventional ones, which in the hands of Hezbollah could be game-changers. Israel believes that while other countries might intervene to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons, in stopping the transfer of conventional weapons, it is on its own. It expects only tacit political support for its actions from the US and Europe, which so far it has received.
Herzog notes that Hezbollah is not Israel's chief foe – that would be Hezbollah's chief sponsor, Iran. But Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a war in 2006, runs a solid second, and Israelis "see a high chance of another round with Hezbollah in the future."
Hezbollah is deeply involved in the fight in Syria, as The Christian Science Monitor's Nicholas Blanford illustrated yesterday in a dispatch from Lebanon's border region, where residents were holding funerals for Hezbollah fighters killed in battle in Syria.
With the number of fighters killed or wounded in Syria becoming too large to keep quiet, Hezbollah has finally come out into the open about its presence in Syria. It is currently fighting alongside the Syrian Army in a high-profile offensive to retake the Syrian rebel-held town of Qusayr, a few miles north of the Lebanese border.
The battle in Qusayr is Hezbollah's first major combat action since the end of the month-long war against Israel in 2006. Although the organization is dedicated to the confrontation against Israel, its cadres are now in Syria battling fellow Arab Muslims, albeit Sunnis. Meanwhile, Israeli jets penetrate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis. Two weeks ago they bombed suspected Hezbollah arms stockpiles outside Damascus in two separate sorties. Neither Hezbollah nor regime forces retaliated.
Syria is the linchpin connecting Hezbollah by land to its patron Iran, serving as a conduit for the flow of arms and granting the Shiite group strategic depth. The collapse of the Assad regime would represent a serious blow to Iran and Hezbollah, leaving them isolated on opposite ends of the Middle East.
Hezbollah's rapidly expanding role in Syria is regarded as part of a strategic decision undertaken by the party, Damascus, and Tehran to safeguard the Assad regime at all costs. To soothe any misgivings among Hezbollah's rank and file, the party's leadership has crafted a narrative that the West and Israel are using militant Sunni jihadists to oust the Assad regime and weaken the "resistance front" of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah for the benefit of the Jewish state.
That narrative seems to have been absorbed. "No, we are fighting Israelis in Syria," one Hezbollah fighter told Mr. Blanford. "Only they are wearing a dishdash and carrying the Quran. But it is the same Western and Israeli project that wants to weaken the resistance."