Syria poses less of a threat to Israel now than it did a year ago, according to a former head of Israeli military intelligence.
Retired Major-General Amos Yadlin, writing in the Strategic Survey for Israel published Monday by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that though the Syrian military remains a formidable force, it “posed less of a threat to Israel at the end of 2012 than at the beginning, and concern that fighting in Syria would spill over into Israel has proved unfounded.
“Other than some isolated shells that strayed into Israel, the Golan Heights and Lebanon fronts remained quiet [in 2012],” concluded Gen. Yadlin, now INSS director.
The new assessment comes as Israel appears to be taking advantage of the Syrian regime’s internal problems in order to ensure long-term Israeli security. Last week, there was an attack on a Syrian target, believed to be a convoy transporting sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missiles to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. On the weekend, there were unsubstantiated reports that Israel was set to create a buffer zone within the Syrian borders.
“Syria’s stocks of non-conventional weapons and long-range missiles and rockets are a source of concern,” acknowledged Gen. Yadlin in the influential annual survey, “and require close monitoring to prevent their falling into the hands of terrorist organizations.”
While Israel remains silent about its possible responsibility for last week’s attack, U.S. sources say Israeli fighter jets struck at the convoy as it approached the Lebanese border.
Syrian authorities, on the other hand, insist Israel’s target was the Jamraya military research facility northwest of Damascus, believed to house production facilities and warehouses for chemical and biological weapons.
Exactly what took place on the ground, and who was responsible, is unclear, however, as a number of people familiar with the area draw a picture of events that differs from the Syrian government’s line.
Susan Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Revolution Council for Damascus Suburbs, said she believes Israel played no part in the strike.
“The fact is the centre was targeted with mortar shells, not even by a plane. I’m close to the area and I didn’t hear sounds of warplanes then,” she said.
With the government of Bashar al-Assad having taken the unusual step of acknowledging an Israeli strike on Syria, many believe the regime will have to retaliate.
Not so, says Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “If Syria were to retaliate – by launching rockets against Haifa, for example – it would draw a very strong Israeli response,” he said. “I don’t believe Assad will risk it.”
The Syrian regime has been fighting a large-scale popular uprising for almost two years, during which about 60,000 people have been killed.
In the wake of last week’s alleged Israeli strike, speculation has been rife that Israel will not stop at a single attack and might invade Syria with a view to establishing some kind of buffer zone that would prevent short-range rockets and mortars from being fired at Israeli targets.
“Highly unlikely,” said Mark Heller, principal research associate at INSS and editor of the quarterly journal Strategic Assessment. “If there were to be a complete collapse of the Syrian authority, and gangs and militias became prevalent, Israel might move to a contingency plan such as this,” he said. “But we’re not even close to that happening.”
Already there is a buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian forces, manned since 1974 by United Nations troops. The demilitarized zone, between two and 10 kilometres wide, runs along the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, most of which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and still occupies today.
An Israeli incursion “would be extremely difficult to justify legally,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst living in Tel Aviv.
“During the recent war [with Hamas] Israel could not invade Gaza – which is not even a country – because of concerns regarding a severe international backlash. It’s far more difficult to foresee Israel being able to justify the occupation of more Syrian lands, in addition to the Golan.”
“A buffer zone would never be accepted internationally,” agreed Mr. Heinbecker, “unless it also was a safe haven for refugees inside Syria with a no-fly zone protecting it.
“That would be more saleable,” he said.
However, that possibility is unlikely, said Mr. Heller. “I don’t see the Israelis taking the lead on helping the Syrian opposition,” he said. “If the United States and NATO aren’t going to do this, Israel isn’t going to do it either.”
“Israel isn’t sure which side it wants to win that war,” Mr. Heller added. “It just wants to have a strategic dialogue with a functioning authority that has a real chain of command.
“Despite Israel’s distaste for it, the Assad regime, up till now, meets the requirements.”
Stephen Starr is a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising