Syrian spillover

Whatever the facts regarding purported Israeli attacks, it is clear that Israel has a right and an obligation to prevent the anarchy in Syria from spilling over to Lebanon and endangering Israelis.

January 31, 2013 23:11
3 minute read.
IAF F-15s refueling midflight [file]

IAF F-15s refueling midflight 390 (R). (photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)


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Details are sketchy on what precisely happened in Syria on Wednesday. Some international media reports claim that Israel Air Force planes attacked a convoy belonging to the Syrian regime’s military forces.

Some sources said that the weapons being transferred by the convoy were chemical and destined for the Hezbollah, which dominates the Lebanese government, has a standing army of its own and is involved in terrorism against Israel. Official Syrian sources, meanwhile, have claimed that Israel attacked a “research center” that produces non-conventional weapons.

But if the weapons targeted were indeed chemical, the toxic element that would be released would have resulted in numerous casualties. So far, there have been no reports to that affect.

In contrast, according to an Associated Press report, the attack targeted a convoy on its way to Lebanon carrying conventional Russian-made SA-17 surface-to- air missiles designed to attack cruise missiles, smart bombs, fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The Syrians have already trained Hezbollah teams visiting in Syria to operate the missile systems, according to local media reports. If transferred to southern Lebanon, these SA-17 missiles would compromise Israel’s air superiority, which has so far provided important deterrence against Hezbollah attacks.

With the situation in Syria deteriorating rapidly, anarchy now reigns. Though there never were easy solutions to the civil war, half-hearted attempts were made on different fronts.

At one time, Kofi Annan’s United Nations mission, which never had much of a chance of success, did at least make some sense. At one point in June of last year Russia considered supporting the Geneva agreement on the formation of a transitional government.

But it has become brutally clear that the time for diplomacy has passed and that Annan failed miserably.

Syria’s state institutions, which were still intact last year, have collapsed, the armed insurgency has largely overtaken the peaceful protest movement, the middle ground has disappeared.

The time has passed, too, for limited military measures designed to stabilize the situation such as the establishment of no-fly zones, safe areas, bombing campaigns and arming the opposition.

If, for instance, the US or other Western countries were to provide some rebel groups with arms in an already thoroughly militarized environment, the impact would be marginal. And even if the US had taken such measures earlier it is not clear that significant results would have been attained.

Under the circumstances, a vacuum of indecision with no easy answers has been created. Not only are the US’s and other Western nations’ options limited, so are Israel’s. But due to the geographic proximity, Israel is more directly affected by what by the unfolding turmoil in Syria.

Israel’s cardinal interests are to ensure that chemical weapons such as sarin, mustard gas compounds and VX nerve agents do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah to be used against Israelis. Another cardinal Israeli interest is to maintain air superiority in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is estimated to have 50,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel that are capable of hitting deep inside the country.

As expected, Iran and Hezbollah began saber rattling in the wake of the reports of an Israeli attack, warning of “serious consequences.” Interestingly, both backed the Syrian story-line claiming the attack had been staged on a “research center” and mentioned nothing of an attack on a convoy carrying SA- 17s.

Perhaps Syria does not want Russia to know that missiles it provided to Bashar Assad are making their way to Lebanon. Perhaps it is convenient for Russia to pretend that arms supplied to Syria are not making their way west to Hezbollah. Whatever the facts regarding purported Israeli attacks, it is clear that Israel has a right and an obligation to prevent the anarchy in Syria from spilling over to Lebanon and endangering Israeli citizens.

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