Analysis: Despite bluster, retaliation is unlikely

Assad has no desire for direct confrontation with Israel, which could bring about his end, Syria expert says; Mideast analyst points to Hezbollah for attack on IDF jeep, says Damascus weary of drawing Israel into Syrian civil war.

March 20, 2014 06:11
4 minute read.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon at Syrian Israel border

yaalon syria border 370. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)


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Despite Syria’s protest about Israel’s strikes on Wednesday against military targets, Damascus is unlikely to respond.

“We affirm that Israel, which was used to complain at the Security Council even about the infiltration of a shepherd by mistake into the [Golan] disengagement zone, offers today direct and indirect support to the armed terrorist groups existing in the region,” Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in reference to Syrian rebels.

Its statement was sent to the UN on Wednesday and reported by SANA – the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Israel had been treating and “returning the injured terrorists” so they could “resume the killing and perpetrate their crimes against the residents there,” it added.

Israel attacked Syrian Army targets in response to a bomb that wounded four soldiers, an attack that, if it proves to have been carried out by Hezbollah, was an extremely risky gamble.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, sparked by the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers near the Lebanese border, that if there was even a 1 percent chance that Israel would respond in the way it did, he would not have ordered the attack in the first place.

Perhaps by attacking from Syrian territory, he thought the Shi’ite group could cover its actions and achieve some deniability.

However, Hezbollah’s ideology leads to it taking extreme risks.

“Jihad is a door towards life, not death. For uprightness is a concern of life, as are pride, freeing the land and overcoming oneself. Even martyrdom is life, in the sense that it is the triumph of spending one’s eternal afterlife in Paradise; and so are the verve, pride and victory of a nation influenced by the blood of its martyrs,” wrote Naim Qassem, one of Hezbollah’s founders and its deputy secretary-general since 1991, in his book Hezbollah: The Story from Within.

Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post that President Bashar Assad might no longer be able to, or feel obligated to, keep the peace on the Golan Heights.

“Assad has nothing to lose from sporadic incidents along the border,” said Zisser.

However, on the other hand, “Assad has no desire to get into a direct confrontation with Israel, which could bring about his end,” he added. “The challenge for him, and Israel, is how they can prevent an escalation that no one wants.”

Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and senior research fellow at the GLORIA Center who has traveled widely in Syria and writes for the Post, said that Hezbollah was most likely responsible for the attack on Tuesday.

Asked why he thinks Hezbollah is responsible, Spyer responded that first, the group has clear motives to retaliate against Israel, referring to a reported Israeli attack against a Hezbollah target last month on the Syrian- Lebanon border.

Furthermore, this comes after “a whole series of Hezbollah-attempted attacks; this one unfortunately was the most successful,” he said.

Second, the bombing “came from an area controlled by the Syrian military, meaning, “it is less likely jihadists [i.e. rebels] could have gotten to that area.”

And third, the professionalism of the explosive device appears to point to Hezbollah.

As for the possibility of Syrian retaliation, Spyer doubts this. “I don’t think the Syrian army will retaliate, because they don’t want to draw Israel into the Syrian civil war,” he said.

“My sense of what is happening on the northern border is kind of like the situation prior to the 2006 Lebanon war – periodic rounds of violence and calm,” he said.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, told the Post, “Hezbollah may be behind the recent escalation, even though it does not appear to be in either Syria’s or Hezbollah’s interest to further escalate at this time. Though, they are so preoccupied with the civil war, one cannot discount the possibility of a further escalation.

“To a certain extent, they both might even welcome a diversion of attention from Syria’s domestic travails,” said Freilich, who is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

It is in Israel’s interest to exercise restraint and prevent a further deterioration along the border, he said. “For four decades the Syrian border was absolutely quiet, and we have to do whatever we can to maintain that situation, difficult as it may be.”

The attack may be an effort by Hezbollah and Syria to deter Israel from launching further attacks against shipments of advanced weapons from Syria to Lebanon. “Israel cannot allow this to happen,” said Freilich.

“Hezbollah has an arsenal of some 100,000 rockets and Syria 150,000 rockets, even after firing some 50,000 of them during the civil war,” he said. “So we have to do what we can to prevent the threat from growing even worse, while at the same time exercising restraint to prevent an unwanted deterioration in the situation.”

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