Syrian Civil War: Why Israel's Air Strikes Are Ultimately Meaningless


Following reports of an Israeli air strike on a sophisticated weapons facility on the outskirts of the Syrian capital city Damascus, speculation as to the strategic significance of this attack has blossomed among analysts and observers alike. Statements made by Israeli officials indicate that the strike was intended to prevent advanced weapons stored at the facility from being transferred to Hezbollah. The success of this most recent strike has spurred U.S. lawmakers to doubt the power of Syria’s air-defense systems, which many had previously thought to be far more substantial. While this attack does show the Syrian regime's vulnerabilities to modern air power, it does not in and of itself drastically change what is a delicate regional balance of power that none of the important actors involved want to upset.

For Israel, the crisis in Syria presents a strategic challenge laden with risk. Despite the state of war that technically exists between Syria and Israel, a quiet détente has evolved between the two over the past years. Israel’s primary enemy remains the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah, which defeated the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 2000, and inflicted heavy casualties on the IDF during Israel's 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon. Hezbollah is by far the most powerful actor in Lebanese politics and maintains a standing militia capable of threatening Israel with an arsenal of sophisticated missiles. The Syrian regime has used transfers of arms from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah as a means of applying pressure on Israel and guaranteeing its regional relevance. The varied rebel groups now fighting the Syrian regime span the ideological spectrum, but it is safe to say that even the most secular of these groups do not harbor any great admiration for Israel and the more Islamist groups may be significantly more hostile.

The Syrian regime, meanwhile, is fighting for its very survival. According to reports examining the regime’s order of battle, its trustworthy offensive units are stretched so thin that it is building irregular units to supplement its defensive capabilities. Despite regime threats that Israel’s attack has “opened the door to all possibilities,” and reports that “Syria has deployed missile batteries aimed at Israel,” the likelihood that the regime will seek a pitched battle with its technologically superior neighbor is low. The regime could choose to increase arms transfers to Hezbollah but this would invite future Israeli air strikes that make the regime look weak and degrade its manpower and arms stockpiles. The regime could also seek to sponsor terror attacks against domestic and international Israeli targets. However, attacks such as these, while tragic, will not change the strategic balance.

Iran is the regional power with the ability to drastically change the current strategic environment. Tehran has provided financial and military support to both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime to build its “axis of resistance” against Israel and the U.S., and Iran has continued to be the lifeline for the Syrian regime during the two-year rebellion. However Iran does not want to draw the U.S. further into the region. If the Syrian regime were to respond to Israel’s air strikes with conventional missiles or chemical attacks, the U.S. would surely come to Israel's aid. This course of events would force Tehran to choose between abandoning the Syrian regime and its supply line to Hezbollah, or fighting an all-out war with Israel and the U.S. that it would almost certainly lose. As Iran approaches its presidential election in which domestic elites are vying for power, starting a conventional war is not in its strategic interest.

The recent Israeli airstrike is also unlikely to change the Obama administration's calculations on the overt use of U.S. force in Syria. The U.S. fully supports Israel as it seeks to prevent “the transfer of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” but is unlikely to undertake such operations itself. Despite U.S. lawmakers' calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, a top U.S. Air Force official warned that “there’s a huge difference between taking out a handful of targets and establishing a no-fly zone over all or parts of a country.” Obama, while firm in his support for secular opposition forces in Syria, is wary of the web of rebel groups who might be closely linked to al-Qaeda, and will not introduce U.S. force unless his hand is forced by Iranian actions.

The civil war in Syria has burned for the past two years and shows little sign of slowing down. In fact, it threatens to drag weak neighboring states such as Jordan and Lebanon into the mix. Strong states, such as the U.S. and Iran, with vital interests in the outcome of the conflict are willing to use proxies inside of Syria but are hesitant to take actions that may turn the internal conflict into a full-scale regional war. While Israel may take future limited unilateral actions to secure its own narrow interests, the larger powers will do their utmost to guarantee that these actions do not trigger a larger war with unimaginable risks and outcomes.