The twin bombings on Wednesday – targeting the top echelon of the Syrian regime in Damascus and an Israeli tour bus in Burgas – could force Israel to make a difficult decision, possibly even in coming days, on whether to launch a retaliatory offensive against Lebanon. That is precisely what senior defense officials will be discussing Thursday when they convene at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. The topic will be a clear and immediate concern over the potential collapse of the Syrian regime and the consequent transfer of advanced weapons to Lebanon.
Israel believes that the assassination of Syria's most senior defense officials, especially President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat (who "handled" the suppression of the uprising on Assad's behalf), has rocked the foundations of the regime. Not only did Assad lose some of his closest confidants, he can now no longer trust a soul. Every bodyguard will now be seen as a potential murderer; every associate will be seen as a potential defector. Enlisting the help of Ali Mamluk – who served as Syria's general intelligence director up until Wednesday and has now been appointed to head special missions – Assad will try to salvage the situation. But he will always have one eye on the plane prepared to take him and his family to safety in Russia, where he has been promised safe haven.
When will this happen? The bottom line is not debatable – Assad will go. The debate among experts is whether he will go at the beginning of the end, or toward the middle of the end. Israel does not intend to become involved, unless one of two things happens: Israel becomes a direct target (which is unlikely), or strategic weapons make their way from Syria to Lebanon. The main concerns are, in descending order: chemical and biological weapons, advanced anti-aircraft systems (SA17 and SA22 surface to air missiles), long-range missiles (especially the Scud-D missiles) and coastal missiles (like the Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile).
As of Wednesday, Assad controls these four weapons systems, with active help from Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards. When Assad's regime collapses, Hezbollah and Iran will have to decide whether to take a risk and leave these weapons in Syria – where they will fall into the hands of the new regime, which may or may not be friendly toward them – or to transfer the weapons to Lebanon, and risk a confrontation with Israel.
Israel's defense establishment has already explicitly proclaimed that the transfer of chemical weapons to Lebanon would be a casus belli. The emphasis now is on alert intelligence gathering that will indicate exactly when and where the transfer is happening.
This big headache has now been compounded by the terror attack in Bulgaria. There was no prior intelligence, but there are also no question marks: All the experts agree that Hezbollah was behind the attack (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even said so explicitly, while pointing the finger at Hezbollah's patron, Iran). The Lebanese organization has been trying to avenge the assassination of its military commander Imad Mughniyeh for four and a half years. (Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in February 2008, and Hezbollah has blamed Israel for the assassination). So far, massive efforts led by Israel's Mossad in cooperation with global intelligence bodies have been successful in warding off Hezbollah's revenge attacks.
The events of recent weeks illustrate just how eager Hezbollah was to take action, almost at any cost: A Hezbollah operative was apprehended while preparing a terror attack in Kenya, and another was caught preparing an attack in Cyprus. Earlier this year, there were terror alerts for Bulgaria itself, along with other European destinations. Given the fact that Hezbollah has prepared terror attack "dossiers" for dozens of Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, and that Israel cannot protect every Israeli who travels abroad, Wednesday's attack was almost inevitable. It is a wonder that it didn't happen sooner.
Defense experts, who headed to Bulgaria on Wednesday to investigate the attack alongside the Bulgarian authorities, will examine the remains of the bomb to determine (possibly) a link to previous attack attempts like the bombs discovered in Georgia and in Thailand earlier this year (believed to be Iranian). This will bolster the Iranian and Lebanese connection theory. But even if an actual smoking gun turns up (besides the fact that the attack was carried out on the 18th anniversary of the terror attack at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires), it will still be very difficult for Israel to retaliate.
Because despite the anger and pain and the fear of additional attacks, it is essential that we don't allow the urgent issues to supplant the important ones: In Iran the important issue is the nuclear program, and in Lebanon the important issue is the transfer of strategic weapons that could pose a threat to all of us, not just to a small group of Israeli tourists, very soon.