Alex Fishman/After alleged Israeli strike, the ball is now in Assad’s court

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After alleged Israeli strike, the ball is now in Assad’s court
Alex Fishman/Ynetnews/Published: 12.09.14/ Israel Opinion

 Analysis: Is it feasible that someone has come up with the idea of trying to heat things up along the northern border in an effort to create a political agenda for the upcoming elections? We’ve finally placed the decision concerning the agenda of the upcoming elections in the hands of a “serious man” – Bashar Assad. The manner in which the Syrians respond to what they say were Israel Air Force strikes on two targets in the area of Damascus will dictate the headlines and public discourse over the weeks and months ahead.

 We’ve finally placed the decision concerning the agenda of the upcoming elections in the hands of a “serious man” – Bashar Assad. The manner in which the Syrians respond to what they say were Israel Air Force strikes on two targets in the area of Damascus will dictate the headlines and public discourse over the weeks and months ahead. It’s safe to assume that if Assad does choose to respond, it won’t be in the form of rocket and missile fire at Israel; he’ll go instead for a more low-profile model of terror attacks along the border or other targets that will make Israel think twice in the future. Damascus is already furious about what it defines as “the daily assistance” Israel is providing to the Syrian rebels.
The Syrians’ linking of the air strike to the assistance Israel is giving the rebels in their war against Assad’s regime was not coincidental. Will the latest attack be the straw that breaks the Syrian camel’s back and heats things up along the border? It’s safe to assume, too, that prior to the air strike – if Israel was indeed behind it – the military experts assessed that Assad would prefer to refrain from igniting the border, knowing he would pay a heavy price for such a move. In general, however, when it comes to the workings of the minds of Arab leaders, the intelligence assessments have a 50-percent hit rate – maybe or maybe not. It’s safe to assume that if Assad does choose to respond, it won’t be in the form of rocket and missile fire at Israel; he’ll go instead for a more low-profile model of terror attacks along the border or other targets that will make Israel think twice in the future. Damascus is already furious about what it defines as “the daily assistance” Israel is providing to the Syrian rebels.

The Syrians’ linking of the air strike to the assistance Israel is giving the rebels in their war against Assad’s regime was not coincidental. Will the latest attack be the straw that breaks the Syrian camel’s back and heats things up along the border? It’s safe to assume, too, that prior to the air strike – if Israel was indeed behind it – the military experts assessed that Assad would prefer to refrain from igniting the border, knowing he would pay a heavy price for such a move. In general, however, when it comes to the workings of the minds of Arab leaders, the intelligence assessments have a 50-percent hit rate – maybe or maybe not.

What could stave off a Syrian response is the fact that the Syrians know all too well what was attacked on Sunday in their territory, and they are also well aware of Israel’s red lines. Behind-the-scenes messages on the matter have been relayed to them in the past; and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has also listed them in public – the violation of Israeli sovereignty, the transfer of chemical weapons to Lebanon, and the transfer to Hezbollah of quality arms that could undermine Israel’s “operational supremacy.”

Sunday’s air strike, attributed to Israel, seems to have been prompted by a red-lines transgression in the high-quality arms category. Transferring such arms to Hezbollah is a four-stage process, with the first being the delivery of the weapons to Lebanon. Every week, a Russian vessel docks in the port city of Tartus with an arms shipment for the Syrian Army, some of which ends up in the hands of Hezbollah. The Iranians also send weapons to Hezbollah on regularly scheduled flights to the airport in Damascus. For political reasons, Israel refrains from taking any action at this stage of the process. The seven reportedly Israeli strikes on Syrian soil were carried out in the other three stages of the process – the weapons training that Hezbollah members undergo on Syrian soil, storage of the arms in Syria, and the stage at which the arms are transported from Syria to Lebanon. One of the most fortified places in Syria today is the Damascus airport. It’s the Assad regime’s Stalingrad – it’ll be the last place to fall; and that’s why a significant number of Hezbollah’s arms dumps are located within the airport perimeter. Sunday’s air strike targeted such arms dumps. Hezbollah has a tendency to try to smuggle weapons in the winter, under the cover of stormy weather, which, the organization believes, could hamper efforts to locate the convoy.

Furthermore, in light of the recent successes notched up by the rebels in their assaults on Syrian military installations, coupled with concerns that the rebels could lay their hands on the Hezbollah arms warehouses too, Hezbollah is under more pressure than ever before to transfer the equipment from Syria to Lebanon. Is it feasible that someone has come up with the idea of trying to heat things up along the northern border in an effort to create a political agenda for the upcoming elections? It’s certainly not Defense Minister Ya’alon’s style, and one would be hard pressed to find a military official who’d be willing to lend a hand to such a move. Moreover, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that an operation of this kind was approved in principle prior to the announcement about early elections. The army is usually the one to present objectives, threats and concrete plans; and the political echelon, including the cabinet, either approves or rejects them. The execution date is dictated in keeping with intelligence developments and operational capabilities.

The current cabinet is a neutered one. Three of its members – Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Yaakov Peri (who was an observer) – have left, and it remains very unbalanced and comprised primarily of hawks: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, Gilad Erden, Yitzhak Aharonovich, and Yuval Steinitz as an observer. This is a group that needs to show restraint when it comes to making decisions these days. Ya’alon is obliged to remain particularly vigilant – and not allow anyone to make irresponsible use of the defense establishment.