Dale R. Herspring
It did not take a genius to realize that something was brewing in Israel a couple of weeks ago. First came Israel’s redeployment of two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries from the southern part of the country to its north, near Lebanon. Then there were reports of marathon meetings involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior military and intelligence officials.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world focused on Syria, where the death toll reached 60,000 people — most of them civilians. From Israel’s perspective, the greater danger was Hezbollah, the terrorist organization operating across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon. Hezbollah is entrenched in Lebanon and has been steadily arming itself, getting ready for the next round in its war with Israel, a state it seeks to destroy. In an earlier round in 2006, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets into Israeli population centers, killing 159 citizens. Israel responded with 12,000 air sorties, killing 1,200 Lebanese —but failing to oust Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah now controls the Lebanese government, which has enabled Hezbollah to install rocket silos and weapons caches around the country.
Israel is trying to decide what do do. Hezbollah is an Iranian client group. Tehran has been sending weapons and equipment and training officers for Hezbollah. Best estimates are that Hezbollah has 60,000 rockets; the Israelis believe that it is not a question of if the there will be another war with Hezbollah, but when.
Among the weapons the Israeli most fear are surface-to-air missiles. That’s because the one area in which Israel has a distinct advantage is in the air. Israeli pilots are among the best in the world. Yet Israel believes Hezbollah’s SA-17s missiles would be a game changer. These SA-17s were supplied to Syria by the Russians. The fear was that the Syrians were sending them to Hezbollah, an action that would change the balance of power between the two sides. The Russian SA-17s are effective missiles, and Israel is wise to worry about Hezbollah’s possession of them.
On Jan. 29, several Israeli fighter jets entered Lebanese airspace. One assumes that the primary reason was either to test for a Lebanese or Syrian response or to see if the targets were present. In any case, Israeli jets returned the next day and struck a truck convoy believed to be carrying SA-17 missiles. According to press reports, Israel sent three sorties of 12 planes each. They reportedly hit the trucks on the highway near the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Israel may not be finished. The Israelis are extremely worried that the Bashar al-Assad regime may lose control of its chemical weapons. Netanyahu has said Israel must prepare for an “accumulation of threats.” If Israel believes the Syrian regime is about to implode, and lose control of its chemical weapons, the Israelis it will respond. Once this “red line” is crossed, Tel Aviv will do whatever is necessary — including pre-emptive actions — to prevent extremists from getting their hands on chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.
In accordance with standard practice, the Israeli government has not commented on the attack. Meanwhile, as expected, Lebanon, Syria and Iran condemned the air strikes. Also, Russia expressed concern that the strikes could have disastrous consequences. One of Moscow’s concerns is that if the Syrian regime’s opponents win, an al Qaeda group could take over. All four countries have taken the matter to the United Nations.
As for the United States, our government has referred all questions to Israel. There are, claims that the United States provided intelligence for the Israeli strikes, but I doubt this. It would go against President Obama’s policy of avoiding the use of force — and furthermore, the Israelis have drones of their own.
The real issue is not only Syrian willingness to supply advanced weapons to Hezbollah, it also is the Syrian government’s ability to maintain control over its chemical weapons. If Tel Aviv attacks, the implication is incalculable.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.