Israel’s perilous calculus in Syria

The latest Iranian-made Fateh-110 missile is relatively accurate, carries a 600 kg. warhead, and can reach most of Israel from southern Lebanon. The question is whether it was truly vital to stop this shipment reaching Hezbollah

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a cabinet meeting in November 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash 90)
Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a cabinet meeting in November 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash 90)

Israel, if the international reports are correct, has pulled the rope taut in Syria. Orange balls of fire bloomed early Sunday in central Damascus for the second time in 48 hours. Hours later Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, called the strikes a “declaration of war.”

Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, speaking on Army Radio on Sunday afternoon, would not claim responsibility for the attacks. He did say, though, that “Israel cannot allow dangerous weapons to be passed on to terrorists, and we will do everything in order to protect our interests.”

A look at the weaponry that was targeted and where it was housed, along with the situation in Syria and the looming deadline in Iran, helps to shed some light on Israel’s dangerous calculus as it deals with one confrontation next door – in Syria; one that could be ignited at any moment – with Hezbollah; and one that looms in the future – with Iran.

On April 21, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced three red lines regarding the situation in Syria: chemical weapons crossing into rogue hands; a cross-border attack; and the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. The Fateh-110 missiles (also known as M600s) – the target of the Damascus strikes — certainly nuzzle up to that third line. Apparently, for Israel’s decision-makers these past few days, they cross it.

The Iranian-developed missiles have a 250-300 kilometer range, carry a 500-600 kilogram warhead — depending on the model — and, significantly, have a relatively advanced guidance system, making them more precise than the heavier and more lethal Scud D.

The most advanced model, exhibited last year, has an accuracy range of 100 meters. That, along with the fact that it is propelled by solid fuel and frequently mounted on a Mercedes truck platform, means it can be fired quickly.

Alon Ben-David, Channel 10s military analyst, said Sunday night that this combination of range (meaning most of Israel could be hit from southern Lebanon), accuracy (enabling the targeting of specific installations), and warhead size (large enough to take down a bloc, not merely a building) — in the fourth generation model that was en route to Hezbollah — was what made this missile shipment so dangerous.

The Fateh-110s are not, however, as advanced as the Yachont surface-to-sea missile, a Russian state of the art weapon that would put every Israeli ship within 300 kilometers of Lebanon’s coast in peril and would endanger some of Israel’s gas drilling platforms.

Nor are they are potent as the SA-17 – the Russian anti-aircraft weapon installed in Syria that seems to have shut Syria’s skies to attacking planes for the time being. (Reports indicate that the Friday and Sunday strikes were carried out from Lebanese airspace.)

And finally, nor are they entirely new to Hezbollah. In 2010 Syria transferred 10 Scud D missiles and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of earlier generation Fateh-110s into Lebanon.

Therefore it would seem that timing, the quality of the thwarted shipments, along perhaps with quantity – which influences damage potential and poses a greater challenge to Israel’s still-not-battle-tested, mid-range missile defense systems – were the deciding factors.

Professor Eyal Zisser, Israel’s foremost Syria expert, told Army Radio that the strikes seemed to mark a bending of the old rules, by which Israel monitored Iranian arms moving through Damascus en route to Hezbollah but did not strike in Syria.

Israel’s calculus today, it would appear — whether it be a bending of the old rules or a hawkish interpretation of the new red lines — relates both to President Bashar Assad’s relative strength and his weakness.

The Assad regime, as Zisser noted, is looking straight into the whites of its enemies’ eyes. It is weakened and otherwise engaged. In this reality, Israeli leaders could well have calculated that Assad, battling for his life, will ultimately duck into the zone of denial – noting that the weapons hit in the airstrikes were from Iran and were heading to Lebanon, and were merely resting on Syrian soil. All this would reduce the likelihood of Syrian retaliation.

Yet Israel would also have taken into account that the Assad regime is not so weak that it is ready to opt for the Samson option – suicide. For over a year now it has been carving out a safe haven –- in less pleasant words: a sort of ethnic cleansing –- in the Alawite regions in western Syria. This is Assad’s back-up plan. Just this weekend, dozens of Sunnis were killed in the Banias region, some executed.

If Assad truly feels the end is near, it will have been recognized, he might be tempted to strike Israel, perhaps with a volley of Scud D missiles, and then retreat to that safe haven. This would provide a cozy alibi: he was not ousted from Damascus by his own people, who grew weary of his tyranny and battled him for over two years, he could say, but rather by Israel, which joined hands with the rebel forces.

For now, though, the wide assessment is that Assad’s regime, though battling, still enjoys what IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz recently called Russia’s “strange” support and Hezbollah’s “neck-deep involvement.” The end is not yet all that near.

Finally, as in every Middle East confrontation, Iran looms large in all of Israel’s calculations. Amos Yadlin, the head of a security think tank in Tel Aviv and a former commander of the IDF’s military intelligence branch,  asserted earlier Sunday that the importance of the strike was not so much the nature of the attack as the very fact of it. “Iran is testing Israel and the United States’ determination on the matter of red lines,” Yadlin said. “Some have turned pink or white, but the importance for Israel is that it acted.”

In other words, the airstrikes were not about game-changing weapons – a term Yadlin rejected – but about clarity vis-à-vis Iran.

Others have suggested that Israel should seek as much quiet as possible while preparing for a possible showdown with Iran. Former head of intelligence for IAF Special Operations, Col. (res) Ronen Cohen, told Army Radio that what Israel should seek is “a cleaning of the arena” in advance of the looming confrontation with Iran.

Instead, as matters stood Sunday night, while Syria seemed to have put its rhetoric on simmer, Hezbollah, taking losses on virtuallly every front, edged closer to making a mess of the region.

Cohen said he feared that either the strikes over the weekend, or perhaps the coming one, would trigger a response – from Assad or Hezbollah. “And that could bring us into a campaign that no wants and one that, in my opinion, is for naught.”

Why so?

“Because, truly, not all of the shipments can be stopped.”

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