How to Understand Israel’s Strike on Syria

Israeli soldiers and tanks during a military exercise this week in the Golan Heights. Syria accused Israel on Thursday of attacking a military base. Credit Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Israeli soldiers and tanks during a military exercise this week in the Golan Heights. Syria accused Israel on Thursday of attacking a military base. Credit Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the early hours of Thursday night, according to the Syrian Army, the Israeli Air Force attacked a military site in the Syrian town of Masyaf that produces advanced missiles. Though the attack does not compare in strategic value to Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear reactor, which was destroyed a decade ago, it represents a major step in the right direction for Israel’s policy toward Syria. This strike sent five key messages — messages that point toward Israel adopting a more proactive strategy in confronting the threats posed by the Assad regime and its partners, Iran and Hezbollah.

The first message is strategic. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Israel has avoided taking sides and has largely limited its role in the conflict to targeting weapons shipments en route to Hezbollah. Now, it seems, Israel is broadening the scope of its action to prevent its key adversaries from producing or acquiring advanced weaponry in the first place. This is essentially an extension of the Begin Doctrine, pioneered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981, which insisted that Israel carry out preemptive strikes to stop its enemies from constructing nuclear-enrichment plants as well as production facilities for advanced conventional weapons.

The second message is political. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already notified Moscow and Washington that the agreement they reached in July, which reportedly stipulated that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces must keep 10 to 20 kilometers away from Israel’s northern border, is unacceptable. If it is not feasible to oust these Tehran-backed groups, then at the very least they must be pushed significantly further away from Israel’s border. Israel, which in August sent a delegation headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to the White House while Prime Minister Netanyahu himself went to Sochi, Russia, to meet with President Putin to discuss the ceasefire, is now clarifying that if the great powers fail to take its critical interests into account when deciding on the future of Syria, it will act independently to protect itself.

The third message has to do with credibility. In a world where threats are cheap and plentiful — recall President Trump’s recent promise of “fire and fury” against North Korea — it is much more meaningful when a nation delivers on tough rhetoric. In this specific case, the complex that was attacked was a research and production center belonging to the CERS Institute. The institute is funded mostly by Iran, utilizes Iranian technology and produces advanced long-range missiles and chemical weapons for the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah. The strike should indicate to both Tehran and Damascus that Israel is willing to take decisive action to prevent the development of long-term strategic threats.

The fourth message is about Israel’s freedom of military operations, and the Russian strategy in Syria. The strike rebuts those claims that the Israeli Air Force was negatively affected by the deployment of powerful Russian air defenses in Syria. That the targeted facility is located in an area under the Russian air shield points to one of two possibilities: either Russia understands the level of Israeli concern of Iran taking over Syria, or the Israeli Air Force has again proved that no air defense system is perfect.

The final message — and perhaps the most important — is the moral one. With the exception of its humanitarian assistance to Syria, which includes treating thousands of wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals, Israel has all but ignored the war crimes that the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah are committing against the Syrian people. As Israelis and especially as Jews, we must not stand as spectators as a genocide is being carried out via chemical weapons, mass executions, bombings, starvation and displacement. The facility that was hit produces chemical weapons, barrel bombs and a variety of other weapons that the Assad regime has used to massacre innocents. Destroying it could save countless lives.

So what happens now? Israel should prepare for a possible response from Syria or even Iran. Militarily, Israel is ready — tens of thousands of troops have been called up for the largest exercise in decades. However, it is important to avoid being dragged into war along the northern border; any such confrontation would be costly to both sides in terms of blood and treasure. On the diplomatic side, Israel must return to Washington and Moscow and once more clarify that it will not accept the ongoing Iranian takeover of Syria. They may now find much more attentive audiences.

Israel knows the bitter truth of the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Deciding to take action before it is absolutely necessary is not easy, but Israel’s experience proves that it is far better in the long-term to confront budding threats rather than nuclear ones.

Amos Yadlin, the director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, was the chief of Israeli military intelligence from 2006 to 2010. He served as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force and participated in the successful raid to destroy Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.

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