Will Israeli attack bring U.S. into Syria fray?
Last week Israeli jet fighters destroyed two critical targets, a Syrian convoy loaded with sophisticated weapons intended for the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and an unconventional weapons facility near Damascus. That attack is a tipping point in the 22 month long civil war which now requires a more direct U.S. role.
The U.S. has vital national interests in the Syrian civil war such as delivering a strategic set-back to Iran – Syria’s chief ally and our nemesis, cutting off Hezbollah from Iran’s supply lines, stopping the proliferation of Syria’s unconventional weapons, containing the violence to Syria, and stopping the needless killing that has already claimed 60,000 lives. We are also interested in leveraging the future Syrian government and protecting our best ally, Israel.
Until now the U.S. has remained on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict providing non-lethal support to the rebels hoping a political solution comes before the fighting spreads. But Israel’s airstrike signals a tipping point in the war. Syria apparently crossed at least one of Jerusalem’s red lines and because of America’s special relationship with Israel, our role changed with Israel’s attack.
Israel evidently struck two Syrian targets in close proximity: trucks laden with Russian-built SA-17 ground-to-air missiles intended for Hezbollah and Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center believed to be responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons. The heavily guarded research facility is also used as a weapons transfer station to southern Lebanon – read Hezbollah – and known to warehouse equipment necessary for the deployment of chemical and biological weapons.
The transfer of the SA-17 missiles is significant because they would constitute a game-changer – a red line – for the ongoing Israel-Hezhollah conflict in southern Lebanon. SA-17s operated by Hezbollah could deny Israel threat-free air space.
Recall in 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war whereby the terrorist group launched more than 4,000 rockets and missiles into Israel killing 160 Jewish citizens. Israel responded with air and ground forces that silenced Hezbollah’s aggression.
Since that war Hezbollah rebuilt its fortifications and replenished its arsenals. But it still lacks the means to defend its air space which the SA-17 was to resolve. Expect Hezbollah to keep trying to acquire SA-17s and for Israel to respond accordingly.
Another Israeli red line is the transfer of chemical munitions to Hezbollah, a view shared with Washington. Last year President Obama said America’s red line in Syria’s civil war is the use and/or transfer of chemical weapons. That is why the U.S. reportedly has military personnel in the region monitoring the situation which is rapidly developing.
Press reports indicate Hezbollah has agents outside multiple Syrian chemical weapons storage sites perhaps ready to grab those munitions once the regime crumbles. But Hezbollah may already have chemical munitions, according to the Saudi-based al-Watan newspaper.
Last winter the Syrian regime transferred two tons of mustard gas and long-range missiles to Hezbollah, according to al-Watan. The chemical weapons transfer to Hezbollah took place from mid-February to March 2012 under the supervision of Syrian Brig.-Gen. Ghassan Abbas. Tankers drove from Damascus to Lebanon carrying chemical weapons labeled “chlorine acid” and delivered them to “Hezbollah warehouses” in southern Lebanon.
No wonder Israeli citizens are clamoring for gas masks and Jerusalem moved two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to northern Israel last week. There is legitimate fear Hezbollah could launch chemical-tipped rockets at Israel given Jerusalem’s recent war experience with the Gaza-based Hamas terrorists and especially Israel’s provocative airstrike last week.
In November 2012 Hamas launched hundreds of rockets at Israeli population centers and fortunately many of those rockets were successfully intercepted by Iron Dome batteries. But what concerned the Israelis at the time was the introduction of long range Iranian-built Fajr-5 rockets which ranged Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Fajr-5s were allegedly transferred from Iran via Sudan through the Sinai during the post-Mubarak turmoil then through Egyptian-controlled borders into Gaza for assembly and use.
Similarly, Hezbollah is thought to have Iranian supplied Fajr-5s and longer-range Syrian supplied Scuds, mid-range Russian-made tactical ballistic missiles, but with a twist. Hezbollah and Iran are using the cover of the Syrian civil war to transfer munitions like the SA-17s and likely chemical munitions to Hezbollah to be used as missile warheads.
What will happen in the Syrian civil war now that a tipping point was reached?
First, Syrian President Bashir Assad is losing ground to the rebels, which explains why he will not respond to the Israeli attack other than say that Syria might retaliate. Expect Assad to continue killing his people until his back is up against the wall. Then he will use chemical weapons.
Second, Russia and Iran, Assad’s only two allies, are scrambling for position. This past week Israel’s national security adviser presumably flew to Moscow to discuss the SA-17s, Syria’s expected collapse and how to keep Assad’s unconventional weapons from spilling across the region.
Russia stands to lose its only Middle East base of operations should Assad fall which explains its past support. Expect the Russians to turn on Assad because the odds are against his survival which explains Moscow’s participation in talks with the Syrian opposition this past weekend in Munich.
Iran is especially exercised by the likely loss of Assad as well. They have a mutual defense treaty which Iran’s grand ayatollah keeps reminding the West about, but don’t expect Tehran to take direct action against Israel because of the military and economic pressure associated with its rogue nuclear weapons program.
Tehran is also very concerned about its proxy Hezbollah being cut off by a likely Sunni-based replacement government in Damascus. No wonder, over the weekend, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili led a high-ranking delegation to Damascus for consultations and brought another Boeing 747-131 full of weapons to boot. Further, Ali Akbar Velayati, “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top international affairs adviser labeled the impending collapse of Assad’s regime a red line for Tehran,” according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
Third, Syrian rebels smell blood and are moving in for the kill. They are making head-way in the ground war but need more help. They also showed their colors when responding to the Israeli strike, which should be a red flag for the U.S. and Israel.
They slammed Assad for not quickly responding to the Israeli airstrike which they cite as proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the “Zionists.” Expect the Isalmists-dominated Syrian rebels to fight Israel if they gain power and they won’t be America’s friend any more than has Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
Finally, President Obama must provide Israel public assurances against the threats. Further, the U.S. should create a no-fly-zone to protect Syrian refugees, prevent Syrian use and/or loss of control of unconventional weapons and be prepared for overt U.S. military action in Syria.
Further, we must be guarded in our support of the Syrian rebels because many are Islamists which, as we are finding in Libya, do not share our views. Expect these Islamist forces to join in anti-American military actions in the near future.
Israel’s airstrike is a tipping point in Syria’s civil war which now requires a more direct U.S. role. America has key interests at stake, not the least of which is standing with our best ally Israel.