The latest overnight airstrikes targeting reportedly targeting a dozen military bases, weapons depots and sensitive facilities across Syria, including in the heart of Damascus, may have redrafted the unwritten code of silence between Israel and Syria, at least temporarily.
Unlike the earlier strike on Friday, this time Syria dropped its quiet game and pointed the finger directly at its southwest neighbor, even publishing photos of the damage. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV channel has also changed its tune, after previously and dutifully taking to regurgitating Syrian denials that a strike had even taken place.
This change in tactics could be cause for concern in Israel. Until now, Syria’s silence fit well with Israel’s desire to maintain plausible deniability, and made it easier for Damascus to pursue a policy of restraint. Now, pressure from Arabic media could all but force Bashar Assad’s hand.
Speaking of the attack in Arabic media this morning, Syrian opposition members could hear scarcely contain their elation.
The Syrian opposition, of course, isn’t exactly coordinating its activity with Israel. Still, hardly any rebels would shed a tear if the Israel Air Force continues to hit Assad’s military targets.
Nonetheless, the rebels will doubtless try to fit the latest strike into their narrative of Assad’s army as a pathetic militia shrinking from a fight with the Israelis.
Syria’s change of heart may be understood in one of several ways. First, this latest attack hit not just one target but (according to Syrian rebels) no fewer than 12 around Damascus. including bases and weapons caches of the Presidential Guard and the Fourth Armored Division commanded by Assad’s brother Maher. Many of the facilities housed Iranian Fateh-110 missiles destined for Hezbollah, and some are said to have been under the watchful of the Iranian Quds Force. Most of the strikes were caught on tape, essentially forcing Assad to acknowledge the obvious.
Second, the regime’s admission of Israeli responsibility could be aimed at shoring up its support at home and abroad. The regime had perhaps hoped news of the Israeli strike in its capital would return Assad some of the goodwill he had enjoyed before the start of the two-year uprising against him, not to mention the wanton killing of his own people. Now it seems those hopes were an illusion: Mideast media outlets are reporting on the army’s latest massacre – 160 people dead in the town of Banias yesterday – with the as much or more focus with which they’re reporting on the Israeli operations.
While pressure on Assad to react is now greater than ever, he knows it is folly. Syrian military action against Israel would be suicide, and Assad knows it. He can’t afford to divert his air force – his one significant remaining advantage over the rebels – to a fight with the Israelis.
Over the past two weeks the Syrian army has registered significant achievements in the Homs and Al-Qusayr areas of western Syria. It’s no mere stroke of good luck – Hezbollah forces are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Assad’s army to ensure the weapons-transfer route to Lebanon that is their lifeline remains open.
Assad is unlikely to reassign resources from that battle for a dustup with Israel that could cost him not just his weapons corridor but his Presidential Palace as well.