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Analysis: Syrian Rhetoric Risks Forcing Face-Saving Action, Wider Escalation

This week’s reactions from Arab and Muslim leaders to airstrikes on Syria, widely attributed by non-Israeli sources to Israel, reached new levels of hypocrisy even by the formidable standards of the Middle East.

The Arab League, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, condemned the strikes. Both of those nations supply arms and money to Syrian rebel groups, including Al Qaeda, making their outrage at anti-regime attacks at a minimum strained. Turkey, which hosts the Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership, did the same.

The breathless remarks offer a preview of what we may expect should Israel or America strike Iran: public fist-shaking at the dastardly Zionists, behind which there will be exhortations to action.

Arab leaders have raised their fingers in the wind, gotten a feel for where the wind is blowing, and suddenly seem to have forgotten about the 70,000 Syrians slaughtered in the country’s civil war. For a time all the Middle East’s ills again stem from Israel.

In his appearance after the airstrikes, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad appeared more spritely than usual – it was as if the attacks had revived him. Assad was now backed by the Arab world’s denunciations and had putative confirmation of the rebels’ collaboration with Israel. Thus encouraged, the Syrian strongman made rare, direct threats toward the Jewish state. These included: hitting Israeli ambulances transporting wounded rebels from the border for treatment, firing ground-to-ground missiles onto Israeli soil, shooting surface-to-air missiles at Israeli aircraft, and deploying Palestinian terror groups to the Golan Heights.

That list is liable to get longer over the coming days, but for now, no Syrian military response has yet been registered.

The Syrian army can’t do anything in the face of the Israeli strikes. Its army is busy massacring civilians. Its air force is more concerned by the rebels’ newly acquired anti-aircraft weapons than by Israeli aircraft – which in any case probably didn’t even enter Syrian airspace.

Militarily, the Syrian president finds himself trapped. His soldiers have scored a number of considerable achievements of late, especially around Qusayr near the Lebanese border. But even that objective was reached only with the help of thousands of Hezbollah fighters determined to ensure their weapons corridor from Damascus remains open.

A clash with Israel, even a minor one, could further downgrade the regime’s ability to confront an opposition constantly bolstered by new volunteers and by arms from Arab rivals.

But any complacency would be a mistake, particularly if another round of airstrikes is necessary. The Syrian leadership’s escalating rhetoric may force it to make good on its own red line and show it means business. Refraining from responding to yet another Israeli strike would only lead Assad to further humiliation in the court of regional opinion. The possibility of Assad sending his air force to try to hit Israeli targets therefore can’t be ruled out.

Nor does Assad need to go on television, declare war, and send divisions to the Golan. He may, instead, be tempted to send a missile or two to the Jewish state to deliver a warning. Assad, like Hezbollah, knows well that Israel’s homefront is its soft underbelly. In Jerusalem too, leaders have little interest in being drawn into a battle with Syria that would bring rockets raining down on their citizens. The Syrian ruler knows, rightly, that Israel has something to lose in a potential dust-up with its neighbor.

Israel, for its part, has few good options. The next time Syria tries to deliver game-changing weapons to Hezbollah, the same dilemma – to bomb or not to bomb – will return.

[Photo: ReutersTV / YouTube]