Thursday July 31, 2014
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31.07.2014
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Eyal Zisser

Assad and the Arab Spring's pincer

The foreign media, which has devoted extensive coverage to the alleged Israeli attack on multiple Syrian installations over the weekend, has focused on Jerusalem's determination to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapon systems from Syria to Hezbollah.

But the truth is that this has nothing to do with game-changers and everything to do with rewriting the rules of the game that have governed Israel's interaction with Syria and Hezbollah over the past two decades. Those rules have effectively rendered Israel's two northern adversaries immune to attacks over their massive efforts to transfer advanced weaponry to the Shiite terrorist organization. Until recently, Israel has opted to avoid preemptive attacks on weapons convoys lest such a move trigger a painful Syrian retaliation. All it could do was watch with resignation as the weapons were delivered before its very eyes.

The new approach Israel has subscribed to is not just a consequence of impending deliveries of advanced weapon systems; it was motivated by the new window of opportunity presented by the Arab Spring, or in its latest manifestation, the Syrian revolution.

Much has been said about Israel's strategic losses as a result of the Arab Spring, which toppled friendly regimes and unleashed destabilizing chaos along Israel's borders. Terrorists, some of them inspired by al-Qaida, thrive in such fragile and turbulent conditions. And so, the calm that has characterized the Syrian front in the wake of the Yom Kippur War has been supplanted by skirmishes between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, which have repeatedly spilled over into Israeli territory.

But the Arab Spring, which has left the Syrian regime mired in a bloody civil war the past two years, has also increased Israel's freedom of operation to levels not seen in years. After all, the Syrian military is in decline and has lost some of its firepower. What's more, it is now singularly focused on the survival of the Assad regime as it counters the rebels. Thus, its ability to retaliate in the face of an Israeli strike has been severely compromised.

* * *

And so, Assad needs every soldier, tank or missile he has in this life-or-death match-up with the rebels. Israel, for its part, has signaled through its alleged actions that so long as he is combating his own people (even if that involves the use of chemical weapons), it will not target his regime directly and will only hurt him if he tries to facilitate arm shipments to Hezbollah.

Assad knows full well that a country that can hit targets with such precision in the Damascus area can also inflict substantial damage on the military infrastructure he so desperately needs as he fights the rebels. In fact, Assad has made enormous strides in the fighting in recent weeks, to the point that he has regained control over several areas. The scenario in which he comes out on top and stays in power can no longer be ruled out.

It appears it is actually Hezbollah that faces a dilemma. By introducing new rules, Israel hopes to disconnect it from the Syrian oxygen tank that Hassan Nasrallah has relied on for so many years.

Hezbollah is gradually becoming entangled in the Syrian quagmire; this is clearly evident by the almost daily funerals it holds for some of its best fighters. The organization certainly does not want to open another front with Israel. By the same token, it won't hold its fire forever in the face of Israel's efforts to impose tougher rules on its arm shipments.

The Arab Spring has thus provided Israel with an opportunity to change the rules of the game in Syria and Lebanon.

Israel exploited this new reality rather belatedly, after Hezbollah had already acquired tens of thousands of advanced missiles. But better late than never.

In any event, even after things quiet down on the Syrian front, this calm will only last until the next Hezbollah-bound shipment of advanced weaponry or until the organization and its Iranian patron decide they can no longer abide by Israel's new rules.

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