Weapons proliferation still top risk in North

Analysis: The immediate danger to Israel from Syria, Lebanon rests with future attempts by Hezbollah to get hold of advanced weapons.

June 4, 2013 01:45
2 minute read.
Syrian anti-aircraft missile launchers

Syrian anti-aircraft missile launchers 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)

A glance north of the border reveals a fragile, unpredictable situation, characterized by both hidden, explosive dangers and – possibly – over-hyped threats.

As fast-paced chaos stemming from the bloody civil war continues to rip through Syria, spreading into Lebanon as well, the immediate danger to Israeli security rests primarily with future attempts by Hezbollah to get hold of advanced weapons, such as guided missiles. Hezbollah could use such missiles to paralyze the Israeli home front in a confrontation.

Israel remains on alert for convoys carrying Iranian or Syrian weaponry from Syrian locations west toward Lebanon. The danger of such proliferation has not subsided, and neither has Israel’s willingness to enforce its red lines and prevent the weapons from reaching their destination.

But the stakes are higher now than in the past. Syrian President Bashar Assad has committed himself to a military response from now on to any Israeli strikes. Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate any Syrian fire on Israeli territory. This means that the road to a security deterioration has gotten shorter.

On the other hand, that fact alone should be enough to dissuade Assad from green-lighting arms convoys to Hezbollah.

There were initial concerns that the Assad regime would seek to retaliate for air strikes in Damascus last month, in which Hezbollah-bound Iranian guided missiles were destroyed, according to foreign media, by the Israel Air Force. But the chances of that happening remain low, due to the IDF’s policy of zero tolerance toward Syrian attacks.

When the Syrian army fired on IDF border patrols in May, its position was obliterated by IDF return fire. The message seems to have been received clearly on the Syrian side, and the border has remained quiet since then.

In recent days, Assad made headlines when he claimed that he was facing pressure by his citizens to allow “resistance” groups to launch cross-border attacks on Israel.

The defense community in Israel was left unimpressed by Assad’s latest threat.

Assad controls less than half (40 percent) of Syria, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, and his focus is on beating back the rebels. With the help of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, Assad is making some gains, yet he lacks the resources and will to open a second front against Israel.

Similarly, headlines of an imminent transfer of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles from Russia to Syria did not reflect the fact that the missiles are not expected to arrive in the region any time soon.

Israel’s red lines are being respected, for now, allowing Jerusalem to safeguard its status as a concerned observer of events unfolding in the North.

Meanwhile, Shi’ite Hezbollah fighters, backed by Iranian military advisers, continue to pour into Syria, turning the battle for the strategic town of Qusair around in Assad’s favor. Sunni leaders around the region have issued a battle cry to evict Hezbollah from Syria, and the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites is escalating further.

Lebanon’s delicate sectarian society could form the next battleground. Israel has no wish to get sucked into this brutal sectarian clash.

These complex regional tensions will not diminish any time soon. Away from Syria, to the east, Iran’s nuclear program continues to develop, and it is approaching the most important Israeli red line of them all.

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