As I write this, an American strike on Syria is a fait accompli and the countdown to it has begun. The strike is likely to take place in the next few days, and the U.S. seems to be debating the mission's objectives, as the campaign is meant to achieve deterrence, but not necessarily a decisive result. Israel is currently out of the game, and our leaders have sent undiplomatic messages to Damascus to that effect, meant to deter Syria from even thinking about striking Israel.
These messages were sent despite military assessments that Syria will not risk a confrontation with Israel at this time. The events of the last few years, including the attack on the nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor 2007, the assassinations of Imad Fayez Mughniyeh and Gen. Muhammad Suleiman in 2008 and the airstrikes of the recent months -- all of which were attributed to Israel -- have taught Bashar Assad that he is operationally vulnerable.
As a president desperate to hold on to his seat, he is unlikely to initiate a military conflict that is sure to spell his downfall. That is also why the Israel Defense Forces has not changed its level of alert at this time. Heightened vigilance has been in place for days, but no orders have been given to call up the reserves or open up the tactical command centers. That will likely happen once the Americans inform Israel that the strike is underway, at which time the Homefront Command and the Israel Air Force will go on high alert.
Still, despite these reassurances, we are unlikely to escape completely unscathed. Assad has already proved that he does not play by the West's rational rules, and he will have to vent his frustration somewhere, to save face. The immediate soft underbelly, as far as Syrian's enemies go, is Jordan -- or the Golan Heights.
Assad may launch rockets at the Golan Heights directly, or use his proxy, Hezbollah, and as cynical as this may sound, the consequences of such a move would be acceptable for everyone: The Syrian regime would flex its muscles in the limited Golan theater, not placing itself in any actual risk, and Israel would mount a limited response, avoiding an all-out war.
But the Israeli concerns in this case are peanuts. The real question here is, what will the Americans aim for, Assad's chemical weapon depositories, missile caches, military units or symbols of government? It is believed that the planned strike will be a limited one, as U.S. President Barack Obama is reluctant to find himself embroiled in a lengthy military campaign and the West is not interested in toppling Assad's regime, fearing the radicals who may take his place would be much worse.
The American strike will most likely aim to deter, punish and degrade Syria's ability to employ chemical weapons again, as a manner of enforcing the red lines it drew for the regime. As far as Israel is concerned, this will send an important message not only to Damascus but to Tehran as well, which hopefully would understand that playing with fire will get you burned.
Until the fog of war clears and the results of the attack become evident, we are sure to face some tense days in the Middle East. During this time, our gut feeling is that Assad must be made to pay for his crimes, but our heads will urge caution. In between, cool logic and composure will be required to ensure that Israel remains out of the bloody battlefield in Syria.