In the last week, senior Israeli policymakers made statements of an uncharacteristically bellicose nature regarding Syria.
It is unlikely that these statements were made because of sudden random irritation toward Israel’s hostile northeastern neighbor. Rather, the statements probably constituted part of a message of deterrence to Damascus.
The need to project deterrence itself derives from a series of significant changes currently under way on the ground in Lebanon – reflecting Syria’s ever tighter alignment with Hizbullah and the pro-Iranian regional bloc of which it is a part.
These changes take place against the backdrop of awareness that the tactics likely to be adopted by Israel in a future war with Hizbullah carry with them the very real possibility that Syria could, on one level or another, be drawn in.
On Saturday night, Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said that another conflict on the northern border was a “matter of time.” Peled noted that in the event of such a conflict breaking out, Israel would hold “Syria and Lebanon alike responsible.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, meeting with Michael Williams, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon earlier this week, expressed his concern that Hizbullah fighters have been training on surface-to-surface missile systems in Syria.
Then, on Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted in a speech that if Israel was forced to fight Syria, “we won’t fear and we’ll defeat them.” Why the sudden ministerial loquaciousness?
It may with some justification be asserted that to assume any coordination behind the statements of Israeli ministers is to betray a touching naivete. All the same, the near-simultaneous ministerial recollection of the Syrian threat should be considered in conjunction with the following facts:
Hizbullah has in the last weeks deployed advanced Syrian-made surface-to-surface M-600 missiles on the territory of Lebanon. The missiles, which according to Jane’s Defence Weekly are copies of the Iranian Fateh-110 system, have a range of 250 kilometers and carry a 500-kg warhead.
They bring the entirety of central Israel within Hizbullah’s range. The missiles are precision-guided, meaning that in the event of renewed conflict, Hizbullah would be able to use them to target military facilities or heavily populated areas.
According to Jane’s, the deployment of the M-600s adds to concerns already expressed by Israel at Syrian supplying of the (relatively unsophisticated) SA-2 air defense system and the SS-N-26 surface-to-sea missile to Hizbullah.
Syria’s undaunted and increased support for Hizbullah appears to reflect a clear strategic turn taken by Damascus. Lebanese analyst Tony Badran this week drew attention to a recent and relevant report in the Qatari daily al-Watan which quoted Syrian sources who claimed that “a strategic decision has been taken not to allow Israel to defeat the resistance movements.”
Such statements, if genuine, indicate that the Syrian regime is aware of the potential price to be paid for its current orientation, but feels that the risk is worth taking.
The Syrians have not, according to available evidence, yet passed the point of no return – which, as Badran notes, would be the provision of sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to Hizbullah. The SA-2, if deployed, could constitute a danger to IAF helicopters, but not aircraft.
Israel has made clear that the deployment of systems capable of threatening Israeli aircraft by Hizbullah would constitute a casus belli.
But beyond the specific issue of weapons systems, the logic of confrontation in Lebanon suggests that Syria may find it hard to avoid direct engagement in a future Israel-Hizbullah clash.
Since 2006, Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria has formed the key conduit for weapons supplies to Hizbullah. And Hizbullah is reported to have relocated its main military infrastructure north of the Litani River, in the Bekaa Valley, in areas close to the Syrian border.
Which suggests that if Israel wants in a future conflict to strike a real blow against Hizbullah, this implies an Israeli ground incursion into the Bekaa.
Should such an incursion take place, the Syrians would be intimately involved in supplying Hizbullah just across the border, and the possibility of Syrian casualties at Israeli hands would become very real.
It is again worth remembering that on August 4, 2006, 34 Syrians were killed when the IAF bombed a packing house on the Syrian side of the border thought to contain weapons for Hizbullah. The Syrians did not respond at that time.
But an Israeli incursion into the Bekaa would logically raise the question of either the Syrians ceasing their real-time supplying of Hizbullah (very unlikely), or Israel acting to prevent this.
Of course, the point of deterrence is to deter. The ominous statements from Israeli officials are not meant to signal an imminent war. Rather, they are intended to convey to the Syrians that they should not think their alliance with Hizbullah is cost free, and that they would be advised to adhere to red lines.
The developing logic of the situation in Lebanon is nevertheless widening the circle of future conflict.
The bottom line is that any future strike at Hizbullah that does not take into account its status as a client of Iran and Syria, is unlikely to be able to land the kind of decisive blow to the organization which alone would justify such a strike.