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View from Israel: Sizing Up the Iranian Threat

This week, Iranian officials said they would strike Israel in retaliation if the U.S. carried out what many see as an inevitable attack on Syrian government targets.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

Iran’s Fars news agency quoted member of parliament Mansur Haqiqatpur as saying on Tuesday that “in case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point towards the Zionist regime.”

Even in the shadow of those threats, Israel’s media has largely come out in favor of a U.S. strike on Syria. “The world should side with the Syrian rebels and make a real effort to help them oust President Bashar al-Assad,” wrote Robert Stark in the Jerusalem Post.

“If Assad wins, Syria will also find itself in great debt to Iran, which gives Hezbollah its marching orders and provides Syria with vital logistical support. The combination of debt to Iran and Hezbollah will likely cause Assad to be much more amenable to Iranian thinking concerning Israel and the West. It is reasonable to foresee Iran prodding Syria to allow Hezbollah to carry out attacks from Syria’s side of the Israeli border.”

We asked three experts to weigh in: Itamar Rabinovich, distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, formerly Israel’s U.S. ambassador and chief Syria negotiator; Tommy Steiner, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy and IDC Herzliya; and Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya.

What would a strike mean for Israel?

Itamar Rabinovich: Israel is taking [Iran’s threats] half-seriously. On the basis of a rational calculus, it is not in Iran or Syria’s interests to retaliate against Israel in event of an American attack on Syria. From the regime’s point of view, they understand that a strike on Israel would yield a harsh Israeli reaction that could seriously damage the Syrian armed forces and could tilt the balance in the opposition’s favor.

Iran shares the same calculus, plus the Iranians are always worried that a Syria-Israel war in the Levant could be a convenient prelude for an attack on their own nuclear installations. So it leads to the conclusion that the prospect is very limited.

But if you were to ask me whether Assad’s regime would use chemical weapons massively when the U.N. inspection team is [in Damascus], I would say rationally, no way. And it did. So if you are the Israeli government or defense authorities, you say, where’s the calculus? And you do take precautions.

Tommy Steiner: I don’t know of any Iranian-specific threat. I know the Syrians have indirectly threatened, saying that they’ll attack other countries, that the whole region will go up in flames. But there hasn’t been a direct threat to shoot at Israel as far as I can tell.

Jonathan Spyer: My sense is that if the Western action that everyone expects takes on the form that we expect it to take on, then Israel is not under any immediate threat. Because if all that’s going to happen is that the U.S. and others are going to hit a number of targets in Syria to deter Assad from future chemical weapons use, that’s not going to threaten Assad’s future rule. He’ll still have a chance, as he sees it, of winning the war, and he’s unlikely to strike at Israel. If he does, Israel is likely to strike back very hard indeed.

Assad knows he is far far weaker than the Israeli defense structure. Should it be that the West intends to begin a campaign that’s going to turn the tide of the war and bring Assad to the turn of his own demise, then the calculus may be different. But my sense is that that’s not what’s about to happen.

What’s the reaction to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile next door?

Steiner: There is some Israeli concern about what might happen next in Syria, there’s no doubt about it. When reports started coming out about the chemical weapons attack last week, there was real shock in the Israeli public about what the regime is up to. If you look at what analysts and officials are saying, their concern at this point is that they can’t understand what was behind it. There was use of chemical weapons previously, but not on a large scale. So what happened last week? Why did the regime use chemical weapons on a wide scale? That indicates that there is a problem in our ability to anticipate and understand what the regime is thinking at this point. So this creates a level of uncertainty that is not convenient.

We really do not know what Assad could do next. And that’s the main point that I took away from last week’s events. He was gaining success on the ground, on the battlefield, so what possessed him, in a neighborhood close to Damascus? This is really something you can’t explain in rational or irrational terms. This raises questions about who the decision maker is in Damascus, who’s calling the shots.

Spyer: In news and on media, I read all these things about people rushing to get gas masks, and you get this sense that things are jittery. From my own experience, I don’t really get that impression. To some degree, there’s a kind of discrepancy, with the media saying it’s s big thing, but people are largely moving on with their lives. They have an extensive ballistic missile capability, so they could very well throw something across the border. Of course Israel has very good missile defense, but quite possibly if Syria tried to do that, something would get through. I think Israel relies to great extent on its defense capability, and also on the power of its own deterrents.

Rabinovich: They’re not massively worried, but people are lining up to collect masks against chemical weapons. People saw the images of the Syrian victims on television. They know that the Syrian regime has scud missiles with chemical warheads. So to be on the safe side, people who might not have before are now collecting these masks, are now lining up. But on the whole, life proceeds normally.

What’s been the narrative in Israeli media?

Rabinovich: It’s more pro-strike. At one level, Israel is part of the Western international community. Israeli public opinion thinks about humanitarian values, and the idea of using chemical weapons on helpless civilians is not acceptable. And you do find op-eds in the Israeli press saying you cannot stand on the sideline. If people think more in geopolitical terms, there is still a debate in Israel over what is better for Israel: the continuation of Assad’s regime, which is the devil we know, or the jihadi opposition, which is the devil we don’t know.

On balance, most Israelis, at least myself, believe that it is not in Israel’s interests that the axis – Assad’s regime, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah – wins. The impact on the whole region and on Israel is going to be negative, and if these jihadi elements become prevalent, Israel has freedom of action in Syria that it does not have in the Sinai. And yes, on the whole, Israel has good intelligence in Syria.

If Israel were to strike Syria, what would it hit first?

Spyer: There’s a whole variety of vulnerable targets. There was a time back when the Israeli army buzzed Assad’s palace, years ago. There is a strong sense that Israel has a very sophisticated penetration of Syria, which means the Assad regime could be vulnerable up to the highest levels. Israel has Syria well covered on the intelligence level.

Do you think Iran and other Assad allies will retaliate?

Steiner: I don’t see Iranian involvement in a proxy war. Opening fire on Israel is not very likely. I hope Assad and his cronies would not be stupid enough to launch an attack on Israel. The arsenal of long-range missiles on the Syrian side has dwindled, because they’ve been using them against their own people. So there’s a limit on the regime’s operational capabilities as well. If you ask me about the Israeli public and the responses, there is concern. More Israelis are going to pick up, finally, their gas masks. It’s evident in the Tel Aviv stock market: the U.S. dollar appreciated against the shekel. But again, I wouldn’t make too much of it. At the end of the day, it depends on what action the U.S. and its allies will take against the regime.

Spyer: Syria also has proxy organizations and allies, like with Hezbollah in south Lebanon, and it’s possible they could be drawn in. Even from the recent statements of the Syrians and Iranians, I don’t think it’s likely.

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