Itongadol.- The air force’s pre-dawn strikes in Syria on Wednesday represent an Israeli attempt to end the war of attrition into which the northern front has slid in recent weeks.
With Syria strikes, Israel sending message to Assad: Rein in Hezbollah
After four paratroopers were wounded by a roadside bomb near the border in the Golan Heights Tuesday afternoon, Israel initially made do with its usual response – artillery fire at Syrian command posts east of the border. But that evening, senior government officials and army officers met and decided to send a stronger signal by conducting airstrikes on Syrian army targets several kilometers from the border.
Israel accompanied the strikes with threatening statements: Both the defense minister and the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said that Israel held the Assad regime in Syria directly responsible for Tuesday’s bombing. Hezbollah wasn’t even mentioned, even though Israel believes the Lebanese organization played a key role behind the scenes. The recent series of attacks in the north, including one from the Lebanese border near Har Dov last Friday, are viewed in Israel as a coordinated campaign by the entire Assad camp – the Syrian government, Hezbollah and perhaps other militias – in response to the airstrike on an arms convoy in Lebanon in late February that has been widely attributed to the Israel Air Force.
Nevertheless, the targets Israel hit on Wednesday were carefully chosen: All belonged to the Syrian army brigade responsible for the narrow stretch of territory along the border with Israel that the Assad regime still controls, and from which the recent attacks on Israel emanated.
In the language of signals, which both sides seem to understand well, Jerusalem was telling Damascus: “The permission you’ve given to Hezbollah units, or terrorists operating on their behalf, to approach our border from the Syrian side is unacceptable. Continuing this will carry a price – if necessary, we can also attack near Damascus.”
In effect, this was another attempt to define the rules of the game and the theater of action.
Meanwhile, senior Israeli officials continue to hint about secret operations beyond Israel’s borders. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told high school students recently that the army is constantly operating, “from here to Iran.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, taking a brief break from his war on the U.S. administration, praised the navy’s commando unit, Shayetet 13, for “leaving our enemies awestruck.” All this is very nice, but nevertheless, the question must be asked: If it’s secret, why talk about it so much?
Israel’s policy in the north is still based on the fundamental assumption that both the Assad regime and Hezbollah are still too deeply mired in their own war against the Syrian opposition to be interested in a direct conflict with the IDF – both because the Syrian civil war takes clear priority, and because Israel’s involvement in this war could tip the balance in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s enemies. But Israel must constantly reevaluate both its policy on using force and its intelligence analyses, because events in the north are currently moving rapidly. Just as Assad surprised all the West’s intelligence experts with his success in surviving three years of a murderous civil war, there could also be other developments that confound Israel’s expectations.
The investigation of the incident in which the paratroopers were wounded is likely to reveal several mistakes in the way the force moved to examine a suspicious movement on the other side of the border. As with the bomb that exploded on Har Dov last week, it seems the IDF’s northern units still haven’t rid themselves of the remnants of their old operational routine, which was suitable for days when the borders were quieter.
But alongside the tactical caution, strategic caution is also needed. This is a very sensitive time up north, and a wrong turn of the wheel could easily cause the situation to deteriorate into a wider conflict.