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Analysis

After a pre-dawn strike, hoping for crickets

News reports blame Israel for a Friday raid on a missile shipment at a Syrian port, but both Jerusalem and the Assad regime would prefer it all stay on the hush hush

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An IDF missile boat (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
An IDF missile boat (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Regardless of who carried out the strikes in northwest Syria on Friday that reportedly destroyed a fresh crop of advanced Russian land-to-sea missiles, the silence that endured in its wake — ruptured Tuesday by the Free Syrian Army’s chief spokesman — is in the interest of both Israel and Bashar Assad.

Shortly after the pre-dawn strike, Syria’s state-run television channel dryly reported “a series of explosions” near the Alawite stronghold of Latakia.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was similarly prosaic, brushing aside a reporter’s question about the attack in the port city with this statement: “There is an attack here, an explosion there, various versions; in any event, in the Middle East it is usually we who are blamed.”

Only Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, was more explicit. He told Reuters on Tuesday that the rebel army’s intelligence network had identified newly supplied, Russian Yakhont missiles being stored at the Syrian naval base at Safira, and that the strike, which was not carried out by his men, was of a military scale.

“It was not the FSA that targeted this,” Saadeddine said. The attack, he elaborated, was carried out “either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean.”

Arab news sites have long been rife with rumor, some of it absurd, about Israeli actions worldwide. In December 2010, after a shark attack near Sharm el-Sheikh, Southern Sinai Governor Abed Al-Fadij asserted that the Mossad had dropped sharks into the Red Sea in order to cut into Egyptian tourism revenues.

In this case, however, the allegations do not seem to be purely within the realm of the imagination: A former defense official confirmed to Reuters that Yakhont missiles, capable of paralyzing Israeli maritime traffic along the Lebanon coast and imperiling Israel’s natural gas platforms, were in fact kept at that base near Latakia.

And yet silence, if indeed this was an Israeli strike, is in the interests of both sides.

Israel, in its dealings with Assad, based on foreign reports, clearly prefers to hammer home its message with anonymous missile strikes, following through on its pledge to thwart the transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah. In this way, those who need to know, know. And those who need to deny that they know, are able to downplay the strikes.

As far as Israeli decision-makers are concerned any sort of involvement on Israel’s part only pushes Assad further against the wall, with the risk of goading him into responding to violations of Syrian sovereignty.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon visiting troops in Zeelim, far from the northern border (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visiting troops in Zeelim, far from the northern border (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)

The president, despite a recent outright victory in Qusair and partial victories in Homs, is still fighting for his life and the future contours of the Syrian state. The last thing the regime needs now is to rouse the Israeli military, which, both sides know well, is capable of delivering a debilitating blow to the Alawite regime, tipping the balance of power in Syria to the Sunni side.

Instead, the regime performs the gymnastics necessary to remain on the balance beam: courting Russia and apparently abiding by its dictates; kowtowing to Hezbollah and Iran, which entails the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah; and refraining from at least a mass usage of chemical weapons, which could force the West into action.

After a muted response to a reportedly Israeli air strike in late January, which destroyed an advanced surface-to-air missile system, the regime was forced into a combative statement in May after a series of enormous blasts yet again shook the capital city of Damascus. “We have informed all the parties who have contacted us that we will respond to any Israeli aggression next time,” Assad told al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station.

He indicated that rather than, say, launch a volley of Scud-D missiles at sensitive sites within Israel — a clear casus belli — he would instead succumb to “clear popular pressure to open a new front of resistance in the Golan.”

Thus far the Golan has remained relatively quiet. Pentagon officials, if indeed there is what to report, have not spoken with CNN and The New York Times, as they unhelpfully did last time, blowing the lid off the May 3 and 5 strikes, which reportedly destroyed a stockpile of medium-range Fateh-110 rockets sent from Iran to Hezbollah, c/o Syria.

Israeli officials have likewise remained mum.

And in the silence, the Assad regime continues its recently successful push against the rebels; Hezbollah maintains its offensive on Syrian soil and its defensive in its Dahiyeh stronghold in Beirut, as Shiite-Sunni tensions mount in the cedar state; and Israel, as Ya’alon said Tuesday, maintains its official position of concerned objectivity. “For a long while now we have not been involved in the bloodstained war in Syria,” the defense minister said, noting, however, that a theoretical advanced weapons transfer to Hezbollah would trigger an Israeli reaction.

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