It was perhaps fitting that the multiple Israeli strikes in Damascus last week followed Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s address from Tehran. Nasrallah had warned last Tuesday that the “resistance” was ready to face any Israeli assault and would emerge victorious in any confrontation. Instead, Nasrallah returned from Tehran just in time to witness Israel destroy multiple consignments of Iranian ballistic missiles intended for his group. The Israeli raids provide much needed strategic clarity to the conflict in Syria, throwing into sharp relief two basic points: Israel is not about to let the balance of power with Iran change. In addition, Iran’s ability to strike back has been shown to be decidedly limited.
There’s been some confusion in some of the media commentary as to the purpose and meaning of Israel’s aerial attack in Syria. However, the targets – long-range rockets and ballistic missiles storage sites – are enough of a clue to understand Israel’s objective. The Israeli government’s calculus is rather clear: It will not allow the transfer of Iranian strategic weapons to Hezbollah. In other words, in contrast with the Obama administration, Israel is thinking about the regional balance of power – which is being fought out in Syria – in strategic terms.
Former Mossad operations officer Michael Ross further pressed this point to me in an email. The Israeli Air Force attack, he wrote, “underscores how differently the dynamics of the Syrian conflict are perceived by the Israelis and the rest of the world.” The Obama administration, for instance, has found it politically expedient to emphasize that its primary preoccupation is with the rise of Sunni extremists and the possibility of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons “falling into the wrong hands,” namely those same Sunni extremist groups.
However, these are not Israel’s strategic priorities regarding Syria, Ross explained. “While the issues of ascendant jihadism and chemical weapons are important,” he wrote, “the absolute top priority of the Israeli government – and by extension the intelligence community and the military – is the prevention of a first strike weapons capability that threatens Israel’s population centers from reaching the hands of Hezbollah.”
As I wrote in February, following the first Israeli strike in Syria against an arms convoy headed for Hezbollah, these hits are part of a broader campaign dating back to the immediate aftermath of the 2006 war. That’s when the Iranians made a decision to focus on ballistic missile and long-range rocket capabilities, and on deploying them in Lebanon and Gaza. Syria was a critical node in this regional chain.
Israel made a decision of its own, to target this Iranian network and go after its key figures. Since 2008, we’ve seen the assassination of Hezbollah’s military commander Imad Mughniyeh, the two Hamas commanders in charge of missile procurement, Muhammad Mabhouh and Ahmad Jabari, the Syrian liaison, General Muhammad Suleiman, and the head of Iran’s ballistic missile program, General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.
These assassinations are in addition to the various air strikes on factories and distribution centers in the Sudan, arms convoys, and the mysterious explosions at various storage depots in Lebanon, as well as in Iran, such as the one that killed Gen. Moghaddam in 2011. In fact, one is tempted to add to the list the explosions reportedly heard this past Tuesday in western Tehran, in an area where Iran carries out missile research and storage.
According to a very well-informed source in Washington, “Israel can see anything that moves in Syria with all-weather satellites.” In March 2010, when Assad transferred Scud-D rockets to Hezbollah, the source told me following the January strike, “it was a particularly cloudy night and even though the Israelis saw the transfer it was in an area of high probable collateral damage, so they held fire. They regretted it ever since and this time they were not going to.” Maybe it really was weather, or maybe the Obama administration, then at the height of its engagement effort with the Syrians, advised Israel against it, preferring to express US “concerns directly to the Syrian government.”
Curiously, comments attributed to Hassan Nasrallah published in the Kuwaiti al-Rai yesterday seem to confirm my source’s information. The Hezbollah chief reportedly told visitors that the Israeli raid was “expected to be carried out in Spring 2010, but was postponed.”
Although Hezbollah has managed to acquire a limited number of these missiles, Israel would be able to absorb it, and its missile defense systems would likely be able to handle the threat. “Israel has a good handle on what’s in the current arsenal,” Ross told me. “But any increase – especially of a more advanced or longer range system – will not be allowed to be put in range of Israel’s cities.”
With the Iranians clearly accelerating the transfer of as many assets as possible from Syria to Lebanon, the likelihood of future strikes in Syria is high. According to the al-Rai report, Nasrallah said that had this strike occurred in Lebanon, “the response would have been immediate.” Perhaps. Nasrallah may be full of it, or he may have conceded that, whether his group can afford it or not, such a major strike in Lebanon would force his hand. However, what he also effectively admitted is that, all the bravado notwithstanding, Israel can degrade the strategic assets of the “axis of resistance” in Syria with the reasonable expectation that Iran and Hezbollah would have to take it quietly. As Ross put it, Israel recognizes that Syria is now 'Iran’s Achilles Heel' – something the Iranians are fully aware of.
In fact, in addition to hitting ballistic missiles storage depots in the heart of Damascus, the Sunday strikes have reportedly hit facilities manned by Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel. When the Iranian foreign minister complained in Damascus on Tuesday that it was “high time to deter the Israeli occupation,” he underscored precisely Tehran’s inability to do so. Instead, it has seen Israel take out some of its key assets from Sudan, to Gaza and Lebanon, all the way to Tehran itself. And now, it watches as its strategic systems and personnel in Syria become targets for Israeli operations – not to mention exceptional intelligence penetration – which had no problems bypassing the Russian defense systems which Iran financed (and acquired for itself to protect its nuclear sites).
When read in this context, these tactical strikes are shown to be part of a broader, clearly articulated strategic vision – something that’s been sorely missing in Washington. As the US plays for more time pursuing another “process” with Russia, and contorts itself as it walks back the red line it never intended to enforce, Israel, as Lee Smith put it, “sees Iran’s regional project strategically, and Syria as part of greater whole.” In contrast, Smith adds, the US "resembles less a superpower than a mid-level manager."
By focusing on the right priorities in Syria – the regional balance of power and breaking the Iranian network – Israel is providing strategic clarity while all the US is offering is confusion.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.