Deliberate neutrality and ambiguity have thus far governed Israel’s reaction to the Syrian civil war, but America’s deliberations over whether to strike Assad have revealed its true stance.
“We take no part in Syria’s civil war; but if attacked, we’ll react, and react fiercely,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the gas attacks.
Israel has, however, intervened in Syria. The Jewish state deployed strikes in July against Syrian missile convoys destined for one its principal enemies on its northern border, the Lebanese-based Hezbollah.
Netanyahu and his administration have remained mum on their four unilateral missile attacks since Syria fractured into civil war. The oft-quoted line from the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly neatly encapsulates Israel’s approach: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
This helps explain the kind of unusual discipline that Netanyahu expects from his cabinet to avoid leaks about strategy regarding Syria and the U.S. response. Public announcements have been limited to Netanyahu and his defense establishment, a surprising restriction for a typically fairly open cabinet.
The Syrian crisis is palpable in Israel, to the degree that people are risking their positions to proclaim the seriousness of the situation. It reached a breaking point when the right-wing housing minister, Uri Ariel, deviated from Netanyahu’s gag order. Perceiving President Obama as dithering on action in Syria, he told Army Radio that “one doesn’t need to wait for tens of thousands more to die in order to intervene.” Netanyahu charged Ariel with endangering Israel’s “national security.”
The savagery of Assad’s alleged multiple deployments of chemical weapons against his own people sent shock waves through Israel. If he’s willing to use deadly nerve agents against his own population, the thinking there goes, what would prevent him from poisoning Israelis that live in a country he has declared at war with Syria? Demand at gas-mask distribution centers increased fourfold in the aftermath of the attack.
Then there is the question of U.S. military strikes. Will any counterattack plan from the Assad regime include an attack on Israel?
The lack of retaliation to the four Israeli breaches of Syrian airspace suggests a low-risk proposition that Assad would issue an order to launch missiles at Israel. It is worth recalling that, in the absence of full-blown war, Assad took no action in 2007 after Israel bombed a nuclear power installation in northeastern Syria.
Predicting outcomes in the Middle East is risky: The astonishingly fast-moving events in the region could dramatically change the calculus. One high-ranking Syrian official declared, “If Damascus is attacked, Tel Aviv will burn.” At the same time, a leading Israeli defense expert Michael Herzog, an international fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote, “a major Syrian military response against Israel is unlikely” using Israeli assessments of the situation. Netanyahu has voiced a similar prognosis, saying there is “low probability that Israel will become involved in what is happening in Syria.”
Should Israel find a reason to respond, it will most likely be because of attacks from the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, Assad’s main life-support system (in addition to Iran). According to the Saudi media outlet Okaz, Hezbollah will strike Israel “after receiving a specific order [to do so] from Iran.” The Hezbollah-affiliated press has reported the deployment of combatants from Lebanon to Syria ahead of potential U.S. strikes, and some estimates show between 1,500 - 10,000 Hezbollah fighters already in Syria.
There have even been reports that Hezbollah plans to attack Israel from Syrian territory to avoid damage to Lebanon. Given Hezbollah’s arsenal of as many as 100,000 rockets in its southern Lebanon base, Israel’s defense forces have deployed a missile interception system in several cities, counting on Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries and the Patriot and Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile batteries to protect civilians. For the first-time in Jerusalem’s history, an operational missile defense system was positioned.
A limited numbers of reservists have also been called to duty in preparation for attack.
Israel has told the Lebanese government time and again that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel, but Hezbollah is the de facto kingmaker of Lebanese coalition politics. The enormously complex chess game unfolding in the region could mean that Israel may target both Lebanon and Syria if Hezbollah engages in warfare with the Jewish state.
But then, Israel may not need to target anyone. Both Assad and Hezbollah are stumbling, and a new battle with Israel will almost certainly diminish their military ability. Israel may not be required to talk or shoot if they sit back and allow Assad and his backers to attempt to fight with increasingly depleted supplies.