The mission went off with surprising ease. In separate sorties over the weekend, Israeli warplanes slipped unopposed into Syrian airspace, wiping out missile sites and destroying a major military research centre near Damascus. In past years, it might have been enough to trigger a full-blown crisis—Syria answering with a tit-for-tat strike; Israel pressing the U.S. and other allies for support; the entire Midle East watching helplessly as the cycle escalated. And there was certainly no lack of fuel for outrage: on Monday, Syria’s Arab-language news agency circulated pictures showing the smoking expanses where the bombs had landed, killing as many as 42 people.
But this time, the fallout was strangely muted. Yes, the crippled regime of Bashar al-Assad mustered a pro forma protest, decrying the attacks as a “declaration of war,” and threatened unspecified acts of retribution. But Israel seemed unworried about the prospect of immediate retaliation. Even as images of the wreckage flashed across TV screens around the globe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jetted off to China for a long-planned trade trip, while a close political ally, Tzachi Hanegbi, declared the government had returned to “business as usual.”
In fact, Israel was acting against what it perceived as a highly unusual threat: advanced Iranian-made missiles that intelligence officials believed were being transhipped through Syria to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. Yet the success of its airstrike—pulled off without so much as a gunshot in response—is one more sign of a new dynamic unleashed by Syria’s two-year civil war. Weakened by rebellion, beset with defections by key ministers, the Assad government is seen by foes and former allies alike as a regime on the brink. That, in turn, has created the sense of a logjam starting to break. In Israel, conservative politicians are urging the government to press its advantage against an old enemy, knowing Damascus is unlikely to answer with force. Outside the country, allied groups such as Hezbollah are preparing for a day when the pipeline of weapons and money from Syria is cut off. “It’s not something that’s going to come to a nice, neat, definitive end where the region settles down again,” says political scientist Rex Brynen, a Middle East specialist at McGill University. “This is a war that will have profound sub-regional implications.”
The question is whether those implications will be profoundly good or profoundly bad. For years, Israelis have imagined Assad’s downfall as a breakthrough moment, severing the link between Iran, Arab countries and militant groups arrayed against them. Lately, though, that picture has clouded. Both Jerusalem and Washington are increasingly worried by the influence of jihadist elements within Syria’s rebel movement, who have mocked Assad for his failure to reclaim Golan Heights territory lost to Israel in 1974. Fears about their intentions deepened this week this week after UN weapons investigator Carla Del Ponte said she’d found “concrete evidence” that rebels had used sarin gas as a weapon in the current civil war.
That might explain why Israel took steps on Monday to distance itself from the insurgents, insisting that its airstrikes were intended not to aid the rebels, but to keep weapons from the hands of Hezbollah. In the short term, thanks to the chaos in Syria, that’s a big concern. Far from abating during the civil war, warn experts, the flow of arms from Damascus into southern Lebanon may actually be on the rise. “Historically, Syria has been a kind of safety deposit box where Hezbollah kept its weapons for a rainy day,” explains Cameron Brown of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “There’s been a kind of reversal of roles. The regime is concerned that, if they lose control in certain cities, they may lose the weapons that are there, as well. The fear [in Israel] now is that they could be moving them to Lebanon as quickly as possible.”
All signs suggest Hezbollah is ordering as much armament as it can take. A report this week on Israeli television, attributed to defence sources, said the arms destroyed in the recent bombings were, in fact, newly manufactured weapons from Iran, including the latest generation of that country’s Fateh-110 missiles. The new surface-to-surface system represents a particular concern to the Israeli Defence Force, because it has the kind of range and accuracy that would allow militants positioned in southern Lebanon to strike targets in Tel Aviv. It is also highly mobile—a “shoot-and-scoot” system, Brynen calls it, that Israel would have a tough time defending against.
That’s just the new stuff. U.S. and Israeli intelligence reports suggest Damascus has entire warehouses full of conventional weapons, originally from Iran, and held in trust for Hezbollah militants. There’s a concern that Iran may be “rush-transferring” the equipment, says Brynen, before the regime change in Syria closes down the conduit.
All told, it’s a discouraging outlook for peace in the region. Should the Assad regime go down, it would leave behind a heavily armed Hezbollah; a government in Damascus determined to recover Israeli-controlled territory; and, importantly, an Iranian regime feeling cornered because it’s been deprived of its closest ally. Factor in the stockpile of chemical weapons Assad has kept despite international pressure to join a 1993 UN convention outlawing them, and you have the ingredients for disaster. If Del Ponte’s evidence is correct, the rebels appear to have come across at least one of the 15 to 20 storage sites where the weapons are kept.
No wonder, then, that Washington seems in a quandary over whether to intervene in support of the rebels. Last August, President Barack Obama declared the deployment of chemical weapons a “red line” in the conflict, suggesting that it would trigger U.S. intervention. But he meant deployment by Syrian forces, and while there have been compelling media reports suggesting forces loyal to Assad have deployed chemical agents in at least two locations—Ateibeh, near Damascus; and Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo—Obama did not say what he would do if confronted with solid proof that the rebels were using them.
Nor has he said how close Syria must be to a tipping point before he’d jeopardize American lives there. For months, the White House has resisted intervention, citing the danger posed by Syria’s once-formidable air defences. But this week’s airstrikes suggest the risk is sharply diminished. As Sen. John McCain, who supports a greater American role in the conflict, tartly noted: “the Israelis seem to be able to penetrate [Syrian airspace] fairly easily.” As for the prospect of retaliation by Syria, Brown, who closely monitors the Assad regime’s military capability, doubts the government would invite U.S. or Israeli action by hitting a target on Israeli soil. “There’s no way these guys want to open up a major front,” he says, “against a major adversary when they are neck-deep in trying to save the Assad regime.”
So what’s holding the U.S. back? Undoubtedly, the law of unintended consequences. Tug a thread in the Middle East, and you can quickly unravel the region’s fragile cloak of peace. In Brynen’s estimation, the collapse of the Assad regime could trigger anything from renewed hostility in Golan to internal strife in Lebanon, where politicians loyal to Assad would find themselves at odds with the new rulers in Damascus. Hard as it is to witness the catastrophe unfolding in Syria—70,000 dead, 1.2 million rendered homeless—decision-makers at the White House and Pentagon are confronted with the self-same conundrum that has bedevilled the Middle East for centuries: will their solution create problems far worse than the one they just solved?