Israel’s Pointless Attack on Syria

israel-attack-syria-chemical-weapons-hezbollahIsrael’s recent air strike on one of Syria’s premier military research centers came as no surprise to those monitoring the spiraling turn of events in the Levant over the last few months.

After all, in the days and weeks running up to the audacious attack, there were several signs that something was afoot—a scurry of Israeli envoys shuttling between Tel Aviv and Washington, reports of closed-door security meetings, the distribution of gas masks to residents of northern Israel, and the deployment of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in the same region, to name just a few.

All this was of course topped by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his deputy stipulating just days before the raid that the transfer of “game-changing weapons” (in particular, but not limited to, chemical weapons) to the likes of Hezbollah would be crossing a “red line.”

If Syria’s state-run news agency has any credibility in the stories it reports, then the research complex was indeed the sole victim of the attack, and not, as has been rumored, a convoy of lorries (thought to be carrying SA-17 surface-to-air missiles) heading towards the Syrian-Lebanese border.

But for all the illogical assumptions being drawn to explain the attack, Israel’s supposedly preemptive action to deny Hezbollah’s receipt of Syria’s chemical and advanced anti-aircraft weapons, either for safekeeping or accumulation, doesn’t make much sense.

This is not to forget that details in the public domain fail to establish whether the missiles were imminently, beyond the shadow of a doubt, being readied from a stationary to transportation mode.

And even if they were, can one be sure they were not just being moved around sensitive sites in accordance with Syria’s air defense rationale?

Anti-Aircraft Missiles

The SA-17s were incidentally delivered to Syria by its Russian ally in 2007 after Israel destroyed a surreptitiously half-built Nuclear reactor. The idea of their deployment was to make Israel’s occasional air strikes and surveillance flights over the country more difficult.

But considering that the regime is battling for its survival—and with the possibility of foreign intervention an ever-looming threat—for Syria to transport its most sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries to its Lebanese ally would not only be irrational, but suicidal.

In any case, secretive Hezbollah’s guerrilla strategy would be betrayed by use of such immobile weapons stemming from obvious fears of tactical exposure.

This is a belief highlighted by the fact that without any recourse to such anti-aircraft capabilities in the 2006 war, it managed to outwit Israel’s superior aerial monopoly and continued to incessantly fire rockets into Northern Israel, as well as maintain ground attacks on both Israel’s infantry and armored divisions to the last day of the 34-day war.

The SA-17s’ composition and radar would be quickly detected and destroyed by Israel’s air force in any open deployment, and talk of such a system having the ability to end the impunity of Israel’s reconnaissance flights over Lebanon should bear no fruition to anybody with an ounce of military logic.

In the past, Israel has charged Syria, then in a state of peace as opposed to the brink of civil war, with transporting long-range Scud D surface-to-surface missiles (which have a 700-kilometer range and carry a one-ton warhead) to its Lebanese ally over the border – but incredibly took no action to prevent it.

Chemical Weapons

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, once disavowed any desire for chemical weapons, proclaiming, “I don’t need chemical weapons, regardless of either the religious or practical aspects. [Israel] has factories, bases, and compounds, while I have missiles. My missiles counterbalance all of this.”

His comments are in line with Hezbollah’s hybrid form of warfare, which combines tactical guerrilla strategy with elements of conventional fighting logic.

His movement, for all its tenacity and ferocious fighting capabilities, has never been even rumored to have acquired chemical weapons.

The explanation for this most probably rests on a number of factors that make using them a tactically flawed method in the heat of combat.

First, and perhaps most importantly, there are obvious concerns for released substances unintentionally spreading to both Lebanese and Palestinian civilians alike, rendering Nasrallah vulnerable to the wrath of his own people.

Second, the international condemnation would be colossal – not to mention the freedom Israel would get to justify whatever means it deems necessary to punish the whole of Lebanon to pressure Hezbollah.

Finally, Israel’s ability to weather the deployment of chemical weapons, either by securing civilians in bomb shelters or using counter-materials to diminish their magnitude, would make them less deadly than conventional weapons.

By all conservative estimates, the ever-growing Hezbollah, whose raison d’etre is destroying Israel, has upwards of 70,000 missiles; they range from air defense to shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface trajectories. It has largely amassed them since the last war in 2006.

With Israel’s extensive surveillance, it would have been obvious to Israeli intelligence that these weapons were transferred from Syria, yet Israel failed to take any preventative military action akin to the recent strike to deny Hezbollah these armaments.

Perhaps this is why the rumored reasons for its latest bombing sortie are not very convincing. Israel is clearly taking advantage of a severely weakened Syrian regime, correctly predicting that the Syrians were not in a position to retaliate.

As for Hezbollah, in the last two years its leader has threatened to attack not only strategic military and power plants, but also commercial ships and offshore refineries in the event of another flare up – something unheard of in the preceding decade.

No matter how many limited attacks Israel makes in Syria under the guise of girding itself from Hezbollah’s potentially unconventional ambitions, in reality its military establishment is well aware that the guerrilla movement’s already established military prowess will continue to remain its most potent, and immediate, existential threat—with or without those SA-17s or chemical weapons.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King’s College London.