Israel's strikes on Syria send message to Tehran

Air attacks around Syrian capital show Israel's determination to cut arms supply to Hezbollah amid an increasingly complex security picture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 4:55am

Israeli air strikes near Damascus send a clear message to Iran and Syria that Israel will not allow arms shipments to Hezbollah, analysts have said, playing down fears they would spark a major response.

Although Israel has maintained official silence on the strikes, a senior Israeli source said they had both targeted "Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah".

If confirmed, it would be the third time this year Israel has bombed Syrian targets, drawing anger from Tehran and prompting the Israeli air force to move to its highest level of alert in years, the source said.

Israel, he said, would not hesitate to act again.

"Any time Israel learns about the transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanon, it will attack," they said.

Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, said the raids sent a clear message Israel would no longer allow the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.

"If Israel did indeed act in Syria, then the message to Bashar [al-Assad] is clear … We are not after you, we are after Hezbollah, after Iran," he said on army radio of the Syrian president who has been fighting a bloody two-year insurgency aimed at toppling his government. "Bashar understands this message."

The Jewish state has frequently warned it will not tolerate the transfer of chemical agents or advanced arms to Hezbollah, and although the weapons targeted would not have affected the strategic balance in the region, Israel was showing a tough new line, Zisser said.

"Israel is actually changing the equation and saying: 'From now on, I won't allow what's being going on for 20 years - the transfer of weapons [from Iran] to Hezbollah," he said.

Israel was exploiting Assad's weakness to do what it was unable to in the past by "attacking Iranian weapons en route to Lebanon while they are still on Syrian territory," he said, describing it as an effective "blockade" on Hezbollah.

"That's the strategic meaning - it's not about Syria or Bashar, but about Hezbollah and Iran."

Tzahi HaNegbi, an MP from the ruling Likud party who is known as a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel has been warning for years it would not tolerate advanced arms reaching Hezbollah.

"Israel warned, even before the start of the Syrian civil war, that it will act to prevent the supply of advanced weapons to Hezbollah," he told army radio.

"What we want is mainly to ensure that with all the chaos in Syria, we don't see Hezbollah getting stronger … which could result in us being dragged into a conflict with Hezbollah in which we absorb losses as we did in the past because we didn't act in time to damage its growing capabilities."

Israel fought a major 34-day war with Hezbollah in 2006 which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Despite fears the raids could spark a flare-up, Israel did not appear to be gearing up for a major confrontation, although it shifted two batteries of its Iron Dome anti-missile system to the north.

Commentators have largely ruled out any armed Syrian response, but they warned Israel could be playing with fire.

"The question is what Iran and Hezbollah will do over time in light of the new reality Israel is creating," said Zisser.

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli general and head of national security, said: "We are not on the eve of a war, for the moment," noting it was "not in the interest of Assad or Hezbollah".

He said: "The risk of war is low but we never know if reality is changing before our eyes. It may be that we're treading a very fine line."

The fall of the Assad regime would benefit Israel because it would halt weapons transfers, he said.

"It is now in Israel's interest to speed up the downfall of Assad, who is being blackmailed by Hezbollah and Iran, who demand that he continue transferring weapons to Hezbollah in exchange for their support in the civil war," he said.