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Why Did Israel Bomb Damascus?

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Last Sunday, Israel struck several Syrian high security and elite military complexes in the capital, Damascus, in close proximity to the presidential palace. The devastating strike targeted the elite Republican Guard bases and a high-profile military research center. After the attack, Israel deployed two of its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries on its northern borders, close to Syria and South Lebanon. [1] This attack followed two other smaller attacks at military convoys, claimed to be heading to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What raised questions was the sheer power of the bombs dropped that rocked the capital and the targets of the assault.

Israel was almost certain that such an attack, which was considered by the Syrian regime as an 'act of war,' would not trigger a meaningful counter measure due to the weakness of Assad's military power. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian Minister of Information was reported to say that his government "reserved the right to respond in its own way," a statement issued by his government for years whenever there has been an Israeli intrusion, but followed by no action. [2] The Assad regime reached such a dire state of weakness that Hezbollah, a militia, has become a core part of its survival strategy and means to crackdown upon the rebels. An estimated 2,000 - 2,500 members of Hezbollah's well trained fighters have been reported to be inside Syria. [3]

The US strategy in Syria has evolved since the beginning of the revolution. At the beginning, the US thought that the uprising would be crushed by the Assad security apparatus, so the policy was to wait and see what happens. Surprisingly, the uprising became a revolution, so the US sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC) for the purpose of forming a transitional government. Both of these steps resulted in failure, so the US proceeded to prepare for a worst-case scenario by which it might become involved directly in case the regime implodes. The US has failed to prepare an alternative government that would satisfy the public opinion of the Syrian population, hence this posed a dilemma on how it continues to safeguard its interests in this strategic country.

The US could not resort to arming the rebels until this moment due to the dominant Islamic sentiments among the majority of the rebels. For the last several months, due to the lack of vital options for the US inside Syria, the Obama administration has settled on a strategy of 'counter-balancing' both the regime and the rebels against each other without tipping the scale in favor of either side, hence establishing and maintaining a 'deadlock' within the conflict. The rationale for that is to weaken both sides until they agree to negotiate and form a transitional government through a political process that adheres to US interests by preserving some degree of Alawite dominance in any future Syrian government.

The greatest threat of this 'deadlock' strategy is the country slipping into a civil war that will spill over to Syria's neighbors engulfing the region in chaos. The US, aside from the plan of controlling weapon flow to rebels, advised Turkey to close its borders with Syria. The US also supported Jordan by sending troops to maintain the southern Syrian borders. What was left unchecked was the Lebanese and Iraqi borders by which the Syrian regime supply lines extend and Hezbollah fighters came in. The Golan Heights overseeing Israel had some skirmishes but neither party, regime or rebels, has an interest to threaten it seriously.

The real threat from the northern region of Israel is in fact Hezbollah and not the Syrian regime. In 2006, Israel was defeated in its 33 day war in Lebanon during which Hezbollah was able to strategically threaten major Israeli population hubs with its missile capability. Last week, Hezbollah's top leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced bluntly that his group will defend Syria and will send its fighters to make sure the Assad regime continues and emerges alive from the conflict.[3] What makes Nasrallah's announcement so dangerous to Israel is that since the Assad regime is so weak, Hezbollah would expect lavish returns for its support - which the Israelis are expecting to be powerful and sophisticated weaponry. That is the Israeli 'red-line.'

The US turning a blind-eye to Hezbollah's support to the Assad regime, for the sake of maintaining its 'deadlock' strategy, would lead to Hezbollah increasing its military capability which, in turn, would clash with Israeli interests. Therefore, this bombing that Israel projected at the Assad military structure was but a signal of Israeli displeasure with American policy, and a threat to the Syrian regime to stop such weapon transfer. Obama responded to this strike by saying, "Israel is justified in preventing the provision of weapons to Hezbollah."[4] A day after the bombing, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Senate, Democrat Bob Menendez, introduced a bill to arm the Syrian rebels, "signalling" change in US policy in Syria. The bill which was submitted to the senate denies the transfer of anti-aircraft missile technology, which is what is needed by the rebels.[4] The US is offering the usual appeasement to Israeli desires, but at the same time continues with its strategy of "counter-balancing" the regime and the rebels to secure its interests.

[1] New York Times, "Syria Blames Israel for Fiery Attack in Damascus," http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/world/middleeast/after-strikes-in-syria-concerns-about-an-escalation-of-fighting.html, accessed 5/7/201 

[2] Wall Street Journal, "Strikes in Syria Raise Alarm," http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323372504578464124199277746.html, accessed 5/7/2013

[3] Wall Street Journal, "Hezbollah Steps Up in Syria as Israel Tries to Ease Tension," http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323687604578466960418934802.html, accessed 5/7/2013

[4] Washington Post, "Reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria could accelerate U.S. decision process," http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/reported-israeli-airstrikes-in-syria-could-accelerate-us-decision-making/2013/05/05/72c6eafc-b5c2-11e2-92f3-f291801936b8_story.html, accessed 5/7/2013

[5] New York Post, "Arm the rebels! Senate bill pushes aid for Syrians," http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/arm_the_rebels_MkjwaCvSeNpTT30iY7EGWP, accessed 5/7/2013

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