Antipathy between Sunni and Shi’a radicals in and around the Syrian cauldron is growing rapidly, lately manifested in the battle of the shrines—wherein Sunnis destroy Shi’a holy sites (most recently one not too far from Damascus) and proudly disinter centuries-dead bodies (or the dust thought to have once been bodies), and the Iranian regime threatens holy retaliation, which goads the Sunnis toward the next shrine, and so on. The second Battle of Karbala is drawing ever closer, as I have said. This, exactly, is the context within which the Israeli strikes of May 4-5 must be seen.
Those air strikes on newly delivered munitions meant for Hizballah were nothing new—indeed, they were the third set of sorties this year. But these strikes were a little more telegenic, and larger-living politically, than earlier ones because the context is changed. What has been going on?
Senior Israeli officials do not relish ordering such attacks. They call attention to Israel when what is going on in Syria (and elsewhere in the region anywhere east of Ramallah and south of Gaza City) has pretty much nothing to do with Israel. That attention whets the addled diplomatic imaginations of people like John Kerry and other “linkers”, who still think, despite all the evidence, that Israel and Jews and the whole Jewcentric shebang of related influences are somehow central to every problem in and beyond the region. Of course they’re not; not that they’re completely irrelevant either (this isn’t simple).
Such attacks also raise the likelihood of a more intense shadow war of revenge, probably against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe, Latin America and even places like Thailand and Goa. It’s simply not possible to defend against most such attacks. So this is a potential price that has to be reckoned in the decision mix, and it is not a small price. The prospect of an invigorated shadow war, in turn, could have a positive second-order impact, if it finally persuades the Europeans to list Hizballah as the terrorist organization it is. But one never knows with the Europeans, whose capacity for supine behavior seems never to hit bottom.
The strikes also ease Hizballah’s political problems inside Lebanon by making it look like what Hizballah is doing in support of the Assad regime is really part and parcel of the effort to destroy Israel. Hizballah has lots of trouble inside Lebanon right now, and that’s good up to, but not beyond, the point where those and others’ trouble combine to produce a new Lebanese civil war (even if that’s likely anyway).
So why mount the strikes if the downsides are so steep? You would have to ask Israeli Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon directly to get the real skivvy (assuming he’d tell you the truth), but some elements of explanation are fairly straightforward.
Hizballah already has some 60,000 rockets capable of hitting Israel. It has around 5,000 well-trained day-job fighters and at least 15,000 reserve troops. Hizballah’s raison d’etre is the destruction of Israel, so it is not far-fetched for Israeli decision-makers to assume that, sooner or later, there’s going to be another fight with these guys. With Sarin and VX likely in the mix with all those missiles, what the Israelis are doing is essentially three-fold: (1) diminishing at the margin Hizballah’s capacity to kill Israeli civilians; (2) thus making a war, if it comes, shorter and hence less troublesome diplomatically; and (3) signaling to all concerned (and the signal travels all the way to Tehran) that Israel will not hesitate to defend itself at times and places, and with means, of its own choosing.
Numbers 1 and 2 are what sent Prime Minister Netanyahu to Sochi on May 14 to talk to Putin, because an A-300 delivery to Syria would make Israel’s task much harder and more dangerous in future for all concerned. (Oh, to have been a proverbial fly on the wall at that meeting.)
The signal Israel has sent to Hizballah has a special twist, not to be overlooked. Israel has essentially told the Hizballah directorate and its Syrian associates that its intelligence on what is coming into Syria, whether from Iran or indirectly from Russia, to the port of Tartus and then by land to and across the Beka’a and thence into Syria, is pretty darned good. That should diminish the level of trust among scoundrels, usually a good thing.
It is also a message that should Assad fall and Hizballah’s weapons supplies be put in jeopardy as a result, Israel can annihilate any Hizballah military concentration from the air. Israel showed that Syrian air defense is almost completely ineffective against F-16s. What we have here is a kind of game of chicken in which Israel just upped the stakes: Think you can harm us? You better think about what we can do to you, now and especially in the not-too-distant future, before you dare.
In recent weeks, too, Hizballah’s contribution to the Syrian regime’s survival strategy has been significant. About 2,000 or so Hizballah regulars have turned the tide around the strategically critical area of Homs, and the link-up zone between Homs and Damascus. Expert observers who have been on the ground have been unified in judging recent military events to have shifted the momentum in the civil war to the regime. That may also be why the regime felt confident enough to perpetrate the over-the-top disgusting May 4 massacre at Baniyas—the first sign of a campaign to “cleanse” (aka mass murder) Sunnis from majority-Alawi areas. Alawis murdered more than 400 unarmed civilians, dozens of them little children. The more effective Hizballah is at helping the Assad regime, the more mass murders of Sunnis in the “wrong” places we can expect.
Now, from the Israeli point of view, there’s not much to choose from between fanatical murderous Sunnis who hate Jews and fanatical murderous Shi’a who hate Jews. But on balance these days, Assad’s going down is the preferable lesser evil, since that would reverberate to the mullahs’ detriment, and downsizing Iran’s capacity for doing harm is the number one priority as Jerusalem sees things. Israel does not have pretensions to play balancer between Sunnis and Shi’a across the region; you can’t sport with a shark using a birch rod with a cotton line. Neither should the U.S. government imagine that it has the understanding, the ability, the patience or the skill to do such a thing either. Israel’s messing with Hizballah has far more limited, if not insignificant, purposes.
As important in this regard is the message on the crawl, so to speak, that attended the “video” of the strikes: No one is going to stop Israel from doing what it regards as necessary for its security. Israel demonstrated earlier this month the truth of what President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel have recently said while standing on Israeli soil: Israel has an unrestricted right to self-defense.
Let it be noted, finally, that not so much as one eyelash worth of criticism surfaced from U.S. government sources about those May 4-5 strikes. To the contrary: the omnipresent body language of international politics showed a raised chin, a knowing glint in the eyes, and a bit of a strut in Washington, all without having to say a word except that, as the White House spokesman Josh Earnest curtly put it in answer to a question, “we’re in very close touch” with Israel “on a range of issues.” Very little mention has been made of the U.S. reaction here, but for those in the region the silence was deafening. Administration signals are either all over the place or no place at all on Syria, Iran, Russia, the IRS, the Justice Department AP caper, pending immigration reform legislation and more besides; but on Israel the signals are consistent and unmistakable.