It is hard to overstate the severity of the Syrian threat, and the sharpness of the pounding headache created by it. Every possible scenario is dangerous, and any choice available to Israel goes from bad to worse.
Recent reports out of Syria indicate the immediacy of the issue. Tehran's threat that an attack on Syria would be interpreted as an attack on Iran intimates that the ayatollahs are afraid of something. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that "the Middle East does not stop while we form our government," while making a direct link between nuclear weapons in Iran and chemical weapons in Syria; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made an explicit and unprecedented statement that "Assad's days in power are numbered."
If the Russians, who are among Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies, feel that the end is near, it would appear that Damascus is truly teetering.
The importance of this development for Israel is clear: The day after Assad's fall has already arrived, even if his actual departure does not occur today or tomorrow.
Israel has three primary concerns, in order of importance: the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah; terrorist activities on the Golan border; and internal chaos in Syria resulting in the formation of a government whose makeup is unclear and whose orientation is unknown. There are already reports indicating that Hezbollah has set up shop near Syrian army chemical weapons bases.
The first concern has already caused many a sleepless night in Israel for quite some time now. Syria's hoard of chemical weapons, including sarin and VX nerve agents and mustard gas, is the largest in the world. Assad's regime also possesses a variety of advanced weaponry — rockets and missiles of various types, an advanced anti-aircraft defense system that significantly threatens the Israel Air Force's freedom of movement, and a naval missile system that significantly threatens the Israel Navy's and merchant ships' freedom of movement. Hezbollah is interested in acquiring most of these weapons in an attempt to create a new, dangerous deterrent on the northern border. There are also concerns about expired chemical weapons.
The Israeli answer: Mostly threats, covert and overt, designed to dissuade Hezbollah from equipping itself with dangerous weapons that have never before been available to a terrorist organization.
The second concern stems from the weakening of the regime and the strengthening of extremist Islamist elements in the country. Global jihadis have already begun operating in the Syrian Golan, where the regime is weak, and have until now primarily focused their efforts on battling the Syrian army. From the moment of Assad's collapse, it is reasonable to assume that they will turn their attention southward, toward Israel. This implies that what has been the quietest border since the 1973 Yom Kippur War will become a border of terror.
The Israeli answer: The accelerated construction of new border fences (similar to the one that was built along the Egyptian border) and the deployment of elite infantry troops in the Golan.
Various unknown scenarios affect Israel's third concern. Experts are divided concerning the makeup of Syria's future governance: One state under Sunni control? A number of statelets (Sunni, Druze, Kurdish, Alawite) with hostile relations? One failed entity functioning on foreign aid?
No one has a clear answer, especially because no clear, singular, homogeneous opposition has consolidated to take the reins after Assad falls.
The Israeli answer: Israel has abstained from taking sides in Syria's internal conflict — at least publicly — and has attempted indirectly to create bridges that will allow coexistence with any future government in Damascus.
Jerusalem is aware that all of these solutions may be lacking. The biggest issue is that any premature operation could place Israel in the international spotlight alongside Assad or give the embattled Syrian dictator an excuse to turn his weapons toward us and launch an offensive against us, perhaps with Hezbollah and Iran.
To avoid being backed into a corner, Israel must coordinate its moves with the international community. There is a slim chance that the U.S. or NATO will do the job for us: Washington is in the midst of reshuffling its government, and Europe is concentrating on the incipient French war in Mali that could become more complicated. In the current state of affairs, it seems we are alone. Yet international coordination is necessary, not only to create legitimacy for an attack, but also to bring Jordan and Turkey over to our side (a golden opportunity to repair relations). Those two nations are likely to pay a heavy price should the conflict in Syria continue to escalate and get out of control with weapons of mass destruction.
The bottom line is that the situation in Syria now is more tenuous than ever. Given the inability to contain the situation, Israel will not tolerate Hezbollah or the global jihad movement acquiring Syria's chemical weapons. We must hope that the world wakes up (although this is not likely), and if not, we must prepare for battle and hope that Israel's deterrent capabilities either prevent this, or at least reduce its impact.