Long and Narrow Road

Jewish Light Editorial

Israel has to navigate a narrow course between its self-defense interests on the one hand and not being drawn into the ongoing, perilous, Syrian civil war on the other. Recent events exhibit the delicate nature of the situation.

A statement issued by the Syrian army over the weekend claims that Israeli warplanes struck at least two areas near Damascus on Sunday. The statement by the Syrian Armed Forces General Command said Israel struck the area of Dimas, known to contain military bases and research centers, and the area of Damascus International Airport.

According to a report in The New York Times, the strikes caused some damage to facilities, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny the latest reports from Syria, maintaining a policy of ambiguity that is meant to allow the other side to save face and stave off retaliation.

It is believed that the Israeli Air Force indeed did strike targets near Damascus in an effort to stop shipments of long-range missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah, the militant Shia terrorist group that is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad and which waged a bloody monthlong war against Israel in 2006. The weapons reportedly were being shipped to Hezbollah by Iran.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war from Britain, reported at least 10 blasts Sunday and said one target was a storage warehouse near Damascus International Airport. A Syrian opposition activist reported via Skype that he heard about 10 reconnaissance planes overhead on Sunday afternoon.

In previous incidents of this nature, Syria has itself not commented on successful Israeli raids, including the 2007 attack that destroyed a Syrian nuclear plant. This time, the Syrian government and those of   Iran and Russia strongly denounced the Israeli attack. The Syrian army’s statement accused Israel of aggression but did not explicitly threaten retaliation.

Israel has avoided getting involved directly in the protracted civil war in Syria but carried out at least five   strikes in Syrian territory in 2013, hitting storehouses and convoys of anti-aircraft, surface-to-surface and shore-to-ship missiles, according to American officials cited by Kershner. Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, has accused Israel of striking one of its positions on the Lebanese side of the border, and Israel has since blamed Hezbollah for detonating at least two bombs against Israeli forces along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israel has repeatedly said it would not intervene in the bloody civil war between the Assad government and rebel forces, but it has also vowed to prevent any transfer of advanced missiles or chemical weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, which rained down shorter-range missiles on Israel during the conflict in 2006.

The Syrian army issued an immediate report and denunciation of the latest attack, and  Russia and Iran issued similar statements. Some Israeli opposition politicians have been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s timing of the raid, which coincides with the collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition and a call for new elections in March.

Israeli military experts cited by the Times said that an operation of this scale would have been in the planning well before the latest political developments, and that the timing had more to do with intelligence and opportunity than with politics. 

Nachman Shai, a Knesset member from the center-left opposition Labor Party and a former spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said, on Israel’s Army Radio, “This is a sensitive time, but…wherever a genuine threat exists against Israel, it is right for the government to act, and we will support it.”

In a later development, an anonymous Obama administration official confirmed to CNN that Israel attacked missiles and equipment it felt might be transferred to Hezbollah. A Jerusalem Post report noted, “It is unclear why the U.S. would leak such information, as it could increase the pressure on Syria to retaliate.”

It’s hard to know why the White House, which has had strained relations with the Israeli government, would make such a public confirmation of the Israeli raid.  It is also hard to know what Russia and Iran have in mind with their unusually strong denunciations. Perhaps with the political turmoil in Knesset, they are hoping to catch Israel off-guard or draw it into a war or words that might provide an excuse for an invasion by Hezbollah as their proxy.

Politics aside, given Israel’s strong military and intelligence expertise, it is doubtful that Israel will be interested in taking the bait on any action that would exacerbate the chances of increased volatility. On the other hand, Israel has not only the right but an obligation to defend itself and its citizens.

So the narrow course remains, and wavering from it is the best chance for an even worse situation. We’ll hope and trust that Israel’s vast experience in coping with existential threats sees it through yet another challenging peril.