Analysis: Israel enforcing red lines on Syria

Jerusalem preparing to take calculated risk now to avoid worse strategic situation later.

Fateh-110 missiles 370 (photo credit: Reuters/Stringer)
Fateh-110 missiles 370
(photo credit: Reuters/Stringer)
The two aerial strikes on Damascus in the past 48 hours, carried out by the Israel Air Force according to foreign media reports, are likely the result of classified intelligence indicating an imminent attempt to transfer strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah.
With Hezbollah deploying up to half of its fighting force to Syria to help the regime of dictator Bashar Assad fight for its survival, the Lebanese Shi’ite organization will be seeking “rewards” for its actions. Hezbollah and its patron Iran may have asked Assad to make the advanced weapons available.
It would seem that Assad cannot have been in the dark over the likelihood of such proliferation triggering action to stop it. Back in January, Israel reportedly sent a very clear message to Syria, Hezbollah and Iran when an air strike targeted a Hezbollah-bound convoy carrying advanced surface-to-air missiles toward Lebanon. But that apparently didn’t stop Hezbollah from trying again this weekend.
Assad is in no position to decline “requests” for strategic arms from his only regional allies, on whom he depends for his survival.
The weapons targeted may well have been Iranian Fatah-110 missiles, which run on solid fuel and have a range of 300 kilometers. It remains unclear how long those missiles had been stored on Syrian territory.
In any case, Jerusalem seems prepared to take a calculated risk now, to avoid facing a significantly worse strategic situation later.
It is prepared to enforce its red lines on weapons proliferation with Hezbollah, and perhaps also send a message to Iran – which is continuing with its nuclear program – that Israel’s red lines are set in stone, come what may.
Although such high-profile air strikes have the potential to escalate into a wider conflict, allowing Hezbollah to acquire advanced missiles would make a damaging conflict with it more likely in the future, and hence, doing nothing is a poor option, the logic behind such strikes suggests.
Hezbollah is already heavily armed, with at least 70,000 rockets in its possession, and allowing it to take possession of Iranian missiles that put all of Israel in range would make a future clash with it that much more painful for the Israeli home front.
Syria may be in a state of chaos, but that doesn’t mean Israel has abandoned its red lines.
There may be additional big-picture factors at play behind the recent events.
Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at the Herzliya-based Institute for Counter-Terrorism, pointed on Sunday to contingency planning by Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah, aimed at creating an Allawite ministate on the Syrian coast, and linking it to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, as well as with southern Lebanon – both of which are dominated by Hezbollah, if the Assad regime is toppled.
Such an Allawite-Shi’ite entity would be under direct Iranian patronage, meaning that Iran would create a new base for itself in Syria, Karmon argued.
“The importance of these bombings may be... not only to prevent Iranian strategic weapons from being transferred, but to prevent this future entity from being armed and threatening to us,” he said.
An Allawite-Shi’ite entity might invite an Iranian task force to defend it directly, Karmon added.
“In recent weeks, we’re seeing this strategy being realized. The intense battles of [the Syrian coastal city of] Al-Qussair resulted in the Syrian Army and Hezbollah almost retaking it. That leaves a corridor open from Damascus to the Allawite area...
through which Assad can withdraw, together with his chemical weapons,” Karmon said.
Similarly, the slaughter of Sunni civilians in the coastal Syrian city of Baniyas appears to be a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing designed to pave the way for an Allawite-Shi’ite entity in the area.
Assad has been able to secure the three major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, by retreating from other areas. He has also created a militia made up of “national committees,” tasked with fighting the rebels alongside the pro-regime and notorious Shabiha paramilitaries.
But that doesn’t mean he will be able to save his regime in the long run, fueling the need for preparing a future Allawistan.
Karmon doubted that Syria or Hezbollah would directly respond to this weekend’s air strikes. With Hezbollah’s fighters deployed in Syria, its forces will be “exposed to our attacks before the Iranians can help them. If the Syrians fire their last missiles against us, they endanger air strikes on their army divisions.”
But Iran and Hezbollah could use their overseas terrorist infrastructure to engineer a vengeance attack, he warned.
Also on Sunday, the former military secretary to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dr. Shimon Shapira, published an article saying that Iran was poised to extend its control of Syria.
Shapira, a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, noted that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah paid a rare, secret visit to Tehran last month, where he met with senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, who is in charge of Iranian policy in Lebanon and Syria.
“Suleimani’s involvement in the meeting with Nasrallah was significant.
He has been the spearhead of Iranian military activism in the Middle East. In January 2012, he declared that the Islamic Republic controlled, “one way or another,” Iraq and South Lebanon. He now appeared to be prepared to extend Iran’s control to all of Syria,” Shapira said.
Shapira cited a trustworthy source as saying that “Iran has formulated an operational plan for assisting Syria.
The plan has been named for Gen.
Suleimani. It includes three elements: 1. the establishment of a popular sectarian army made up of Shi’ites and Allawites, to be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf. 2.
This force will reach 150,000 fighters.
3. The plan will give preference to importing forces from Iran, Iraq and, only afterwards, other Shi’ite elements.
This regional force will be integrated with the Syrian Army.
Suleimani himself visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare the implementation of this plan.”
Shapira labeled these preparations as a “Plan B,” for use in the event of Assad’s fall.
“Iran already seems to be looking beyond the regime’s survivability and preparing for a reality where it will have to operate in Syria even if Assad falls. Even before recent events in Syria, observers in the Arab world have been warning for years about growing evidence of “Iranian expansionism,” Shapira said.
And Hezbollah is expected to play a central role in this expansionism, he added.