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Syria’s Fighting Words: More Than Just Words

The report in yesterday’s Sunday Times that Syria had advanced missiles trained on Tel Aviv could create the impression that another Israeli-Syrian war is in the offing.

Syria’s heightened level of alert is no surprise. It’s standard practice for the Assad regime to warn that a single bullet fired at its soil will trigger retaliation by the commanders of its missile batteries even without explicit orders from above.

However, Assad has no interest in being dragged into a clash with Israel that would destroy much of his air and ground forces; certainly not while he’s bogged down in intense internecine fighting. Given Assad’s circumstances, therefore, Israel may feel it enjoys a certain immunity from the prospect of war with Syria.

Yet the recent escalation of Israeli-Syrian rhetoric – particularly since Israel’s air strikes on Damascus two weeks ago – is not insignificant. Reports in the Syrian, Israeli, and Western media highlight the current situation: an unnamed Israeli official threatened to topple Assad; Russian media report that  Moscow transferred advanced weaponry to Syria; and Iran’s media report that  the regime has authorized Hezbollah to hit Israel in the event of an Israeli-Syrian war.

The string of public threats could ultimately push Syria and Israel into a clash neither one  wants. Damascus will likely try to give Hezbollah advanced missiles once more. The only question is whether and how Israel responds. If Jerusalem sticks to its stated policy of not allowing sophisticated weapons to fall into the Lebanese terrorists’ hands, it will have to strike Syria again. Assad, in turn, will be forced by his own public pronouncements to respond.

So what is the Israeli government to do? It’s no easy question, given the cast of characters involved. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Hezbollah and the varied faces of the Syrian opposition all have interests and roles in the conflict.

Assad’s dilemma is also complex. If Israel strikes again and he refrains from a counterattack, he will be the joke of the Middle East. He may, therefore, conduct a limited response, such as firing a missile or two at an open area in Israel. Such a limited response could prove his “honor” remains intact on the anti-Israel front. Having already earned the image of arch-butcher of the Arab Spring, such a move may help Assad win back some support from the region’s “street.”

[Photo: James_Gordon_losangeles / Flickr]