Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

They bomb Al-Assad then mourn him

While Israel strikes Syria, Tel Aviv’s security officials are privately worried about losing Bashar Al-Assad and what may come next, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Al-Ahram Weekly

This is the phrase Israeli writer Gideon Levi used Sunday in Haaretz to describe a contradiction at the heart of Israeli policy on Syria as the country teeters on the edge of collapse, and amid Israeli air strikes that could accelerate the fall of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

Meanwhile, Levi condemned the silence of the world community on what he described as Israel’s “debauchery”, and the overall belief of consecutive Israeli governments that they can do as they please with Arabs because the world will not lift a finger. Levi connected the Israeli attacks on Syria with Tel Aviv’s challenge of the international community by continuing Judaisation and settlement building in the West Bank, and the world’s “flimsy” criticism.

Levi was one of very few inside Israel who criticised Israel’s action against Syria. Media, cultural and political leaders in Israel were “proud” of the attacks, although Israel did not officially take responsibility for the strikes. Israel continued to agitate against Syria’s chemical and conventional weapons arsenal, and publicly and through diplomatic and intelligence channels talked about the danger of these weapons ending up in “enemy” hands. These would include Hizbullah, in coordination with the Syrian regime itself, or that Islamist jihadist groups would gain control of these stockpiles if the regime fell.

It is no secret that elite, intelligence and military agencies in Tel Aviv had endless discussions about how to confront what they described as “terrifying scenarios” if Syrian conventional and unconventional weapons ended up in “enemy” hands. But no one expected Israel to intervene in Syrian affairs in this manner and so quickly by bombing Syrian military targets. Foreign media reported that Israel’s Air Force bombed several targets inside Syria, including a caravan transporting to Hizbullah a very advanced anti-missile system that Syria recently acquired from Russia. The caravan was moving in rural Damascus on its way to Lebanon.

While Israel did not officially comment on reports of the attack on the caravan, as it usually does when it strikes in the heart of Arab countries, Israeli media quoted military sources in Tel Aviv as saying that the attack will not be the last. Israeli media also confirmed reports that Obama’s administration informed Netanyahu he has a free hand in attacking Syria to stop any attempt to send Syrian weapons outside the country.

While Israel stressed its concerns that weapons would end up in the hands of Islamist groups that share Al-Qaeda’s ideology, it realises at the same time that weapons smuggled to Hizbullah are a more pressing challenge because this would occur in cooperation with the Syrian regime, or because of Hizbullah’s influence with the regime. Thus, Israeli intelligence leaked reports to Israeli and foreign media that Hizbullah fighters are guarding chemical weapons depots in Syria. Some Israeli newspapers even printed photographs claiming to be of Hizbullah fighters guarding chemical weapons facilities.

In confronting the threat of Syria’s weapons, Israel was able to collect highly sensitive intelligence from inside the Syrian regime itself. Uzi Arad, the former head of research at Mossad who also previously served as political advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and is the former chairman of the National Security Council and chairman of the key research centre in Israel, the Interdisciplinary Centre of Herzliya, made an excellent point. Arad said in an interview on Israel’s Channel 1 that Israel obtains sensitive intelligence from Syria because of the nature of the regime. While he avoided giving any more details, it was clear that Israel has valuable human intelligence assets that enable Tel Aviv to know the direction of the Syrian regime, and have real-time information about the regime’s plans.

Ironically, Amos Harel, the military expert at Haaretz newspaper, quoted Israeli security sources as saying that what Israel fears the most after Al-Assad’s overthrow is that intelligence would dry up, at a time when the Syrian front would become the most dangerous it has ever been.

Unlike reports in the Western media, the Syrian regime ignored the fact that Israel attacked a caravan of Russian missiles to Syria going to Hizbullah. Instead, Syrian media focussed on air strikes targeting a research facility on the outskirts of the capital. But Israeli security agencies, through several senior commentators in the Israel press, denied the Syrian version to implicate Al-Assad with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ron Ben Yishai, a senior military commentator at Yediot Aharonot newspaper, quoted a military source as saying that official Syrian spokesmen avoided admitting the truth out of concern over Moscow’s response when it finds out that Syrians are smuggling modern Russian weapons to a “terrorist” organisation such as Hizbullah. Decision makers in Tel Aviv understand how sensitive this issue would be for Al-Assad since Russia is the only world power that is supporting and aiding him, as well as blocking any UN resolution that would interfere in his rule.

If Al-Assad loses this support it would speed up his end; Putin could no longer justify his defence of Al-Assad’s regime in the face of the West if Al-Assad is found sending advanced weapons to Hizbullah, which is listed as a terrorist group. It is very likely that Israel’s air strikes also aimed to embarrass the Russians. Putin could no longer justify supporting a regime sending these powerful systems to a “terrorist” group, since Hizbullah could use them not only to attack Israel but also against the US and European countries, Israel claims.

After Israel’s bombings in Syria, Washington quickly warned Al-Assad against smuggling weapons to Hizbullah. But what is reported in the media about cooperation and coordination between the US and Israel on Syria’s weapons is far less than what is actually taking place. Israel’s Channel 1 reported on 31 January that the US agreed with Israel on a ground invasion if Al-Assad’s regime is very close to collapse, and that elite US units in the Gulf region are being trained not only to raid chemical weapons depots but also to take control of Syria’s long-range conventional missiles. The report noted that Israeli elite forces, especially Sayeret Matkal and others, are training on the same mission as the US elite units.

Israeli media reported that military special units have often operated inside Syria to gather intelligence about chemical weapons and long-range conventional missiles. Israel critically noted that Syria has rockets that can reach the farthest point in Israel, even Eilat in the southernmost tip of Israel.

Israel tried to kill several birds with one stone: it stopped the delivery of weapons to Hizbullah that would offset the balance of power; it tried to make trouble for Al-Assad with Russia; and tried to implicate Moscow with the West. More importantly, it is sending a message to Al-Assad’s successors that it will not hesitate to attack targets inside Syria after the regime collapses.

While Israel’s leadership was very confident in dealing with Syria, it knows that Israel runs a high risk after Al-Assad’s ouster as noted in Israeli Minister Gilad Erdan’s lament of Al-Assad’s regime: “One day we will mourn the day the regime of the Al-Assad family fell; the fronts of Gaza and Lebanon will be a joke compared to the Syrian front after Al-Assad is gone.”

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