17 August 2012
USCENTCOM: Syria Analysis Part I – The Israel Option
The wider threats posed by introducing chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict may prompt an Israeli preemptive strike on government stockpiles and other military targets. Such an assault, argues Eric Barros, may also provide an opportunity for Tel Aviv to weaken Iran’s support for Hezbollah.
By Eric Barros for Center for Advanced Defense Studies (CADS)
The introduction of chemical weapons as a credible addition to the already messy crisis in Syria increases the urgency for a resolution to the conflict. No longer can the international community base its strategy on harsh critiques of the current regime without risking a serious erosion of the security situation in the Middle East. As a staunch supporter and valued ally of Iran, President Bashar al Assad's removal from office is in the interest of the United States. The CIA has dispatched teams to border posts in order to arm vetted opposition elements, but recent reports suggest a lack of intelligence assets within Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) continues in its armed struggle against the regime, but does not control enough land from which American and other foreign advisors can securely operate. Additionally, the United States' pullout from Iraq has not erased the lessons learned from toppling a country's leadership. Doing so effectively grants ownership of the subsequent chaos to the foreign entity responsible for the power vacuum. This renders the option of an American intervention unthinkable for some (but not all) policymakers. Taken together, these facts warrant a serious examination of the Israeli strike option.
The Israeli government certainly requires no update on the situation in neighboring Syria, as a constant surveillance of the crisis is relevant to managing multiple threats to the security of the Jewish state. Hezbollah, the Shi'a militant organization based in Lebanon, is widely viewed as Iran’s proxy force on Israel's borders. Transfer of President Assad's arsenal to Hezbollah, especially portable anti-aircraft munitions, is a clear red line for the Israelis, and it is a situation they will likely seek to preempt. The tensions between Iran and Israel are central to much of the discussion surrounding Middle East developments, from the Arab Awakening to the Syrian civil war. Although details are still forthcoming on the Bulgarian attack on Israeli tourists, Hezbollah and (by extension) Iran have become immediate suspects. In the context of other alleged Iranian plots against Israeli targets abroad, the Israeli inclination to strike Iranian interests is considerable.
The immediate threat of arms flow to Hezbollah and the larger strategic motive of weakening an Iranian ally makes a strike against President Assad's weapons an opportune and calculated option for Israel. Of course, the Israelis have had recent experience in aerial strikes on Syrian targets, further adding to confidence of a military success if an attack takes place in the near future. Such an attack is likely to target Syrian supplies of mustard gas, sarin, and cyanide. President Assad's decision to move his chemical weapons may force aerial attack aircraft to venture deep into Syrian territory, and within range of anti-aircraft positions. In such a scenario, thoroughly eliminating the chemical weapons stockpiles requires the neutralization of anti-aircraft batteries and the Syrian air force. The effects of battered Syrian air capabilities and loss of chemical weapons prevents the Assad regime from maintaining the status quo against the opposition, or intensifying its struggle to stay in power. Strategically, Israel would severely debilitate the capabilities of Iran's closest ally. In the tactical sense, Israelis may get a chance to actually strike something of Persian origin should the Israeli option be implemented.
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