Despite official silence, it is reasonably clear that the Israeli Air Force bombed targets in Syria twice since late Thursday night. The putative reason for the attack was to prevent the transfer of Iranian long-range missiles to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, and which started the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel. This weekend Israeli fighter jets flew over Lebanon to shoot missiles into targets outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria. Syrian State News reported the strikes and threatened retribution. When US President Obama was asked about the Israeli strikes, he responded that Israel is entitled to defend itself by preventing the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, serving Israeli national security interests.
Leaving aside questions of international legality and morality, which rarely trouble militarily superior countries in relation to what they identify as national security issues, were Israeli interests served by these airstrikes? The attacks were not subtle, and there is no pretense that anyone else carried them out. The Assad government responded by interpreting the attack as a declaration of war, as Israel itself would have done if Syrian jets had used Jordanian airspace to bomb Israeli military installations near Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Syria’s Information Minister al-Zu’bi said the attack “opens the door wide open for all possibilities” in terms of retaliation. Heads of most Arab states condemned the Israeli airstrikes, as did the Syrian National Coalition, which could gain from the weakening of Assad’s forces by the Israeli attacks. Israel is perhaps hoping that this preemptive strike, like the one in Khartoum last October, will blow over in the international community. Hezbollah certainly isn’t going to profit from whatever was destroyed in the attacks, and Assad is unlikely to expend energy on a retaliatory strike when he has his hands full with domestic troubles.
But in striking Mount Qasyun above Damascus, Israel has dramatically made the point that it can bomb the Syrian capital at any time. This detail is unlikely to be forgotten by whoever emerges as the last force standing in the Syrian Civil War. The number of Syrians who blame all the casualties of war on Assad personally mean that there can probably be no place for Bashar al-Assad in a post-war Syria. Since he has vowed to “live and die” in Syria, the best possible outcome for Israel might be a partitioning of Syria between regions loyal to Assad and regions which elect a new government. This would prevent any one government from mustering Syria’s full military power against Israel, as they would likely jealously watch each other first and foremost. But instead of one Lebanon north of its border, Syria would have several Lebanons to keep track of. But a stably partitioned Syria also seems to be a fabulously unlikely possibility.
Whatever government might replace Assad is likely to be worse for Israel. If the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra takes over the country, they are unlikely to preserve the uneasy ceasefire between Syria and Israel which the Assad dynasty has observed for the last few decades, and might declare the Israeli government their next target. A war between Israel and a newly radicalized “Syrian Islamic Republic” could draw in regional support from Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well, leading to a new Arab-Israeli war which could damage Israel more than the rockets destroyed this weekend.
A Western-backed secularist Arab government in Syria may be more inclined to be circumspect with regard to Israel, given shared allies in Western Europe and North America. But there is unlikely to be any love lost between such a government and Israel, and it is more likely to work closely with the Arab League to oppose Israel in international politics, which Assad’s relative diplomatic isolation prevented. The threat of a future Israeli preemptive strike on Damascus could encourage moving the capital of Syria further north to Aleppo (or what’s left of it after the war ends), and might encourage Syria and other Arab states to strike first and lethally in any future conflict. The increased paranoia on both sides of the border is unlikely to facilitate regional stability and peace.
A failed state environment, similar to Somalia after 1991, might resemble the outcome of an al-Qa’ida controlled Syria with the advantage of reduced firepower but the disadvantage of less readily identifiable targets, and greater difficulty distinguishing which group may decided to target Israel at any time.
Given the potential long-term costs, I wonder whether Israel’s decision to conduct airstrikes in the region around Damascus will push their enemies towards more brutal violence, and thus whether Israel’s airstrikes have sacrificed long-term interests for short-term tactical goals.