Israeli media have been reporting that the alleged Sept. 6 Israeli air force (IAF) incursion
into Syria had the photo reconnaissance of nuclear sites as its objective. Though these reports and the remaining evidence create more questions than they answer
, this hypothesis is not compelling. The conventional threat to Israel posed by Syria looms much larger, and though Israel must be vigilant to the Syrian threat — whether nuclear or conventional — the Jewish state has good reason to proceed with restraint. Despite its status in U.S. eyes as a second-tier "Axis of Evil" state, Syria does not have a nuclear program that comes close to North Korea's or even Iran's program. It continues to focus on civilian research, particularly the production of radioisotopes for medical purposes. Though connections to Iranian and North Korean know-how could accelerate the Syrian program, Syria lacks the finances and resources to commit to an advanced nuclear program — not to mention the standoff distance needed to conceal anything of that scale from the Mossad.
Thus, whether the incursion was a photo reconnaissance, offensive strike or some other sort of mission, reports of the nuclear angle fail to convince. The rudimentary state of Syria's nuclear program (even taking into account all the unknowns) means Damascus has not crossed the sort of redline that would warrant the attention of what, by Syrian reports, appears to have been at least four Israeli aircraft. Syria's conventional capabilities are no match for Israel's, and any significant move toward a more robust nuclear program would ensure a swift and strong Israeli military response — one Damascus has neither the desire to incur nor the ability to repel. Syria's use of militant proxies
against Israel, however, cannot be ruled out, given that Syrian diplomatic objections to the alleged incursion largely have been ignored. Interestingly, both the resumption of Qassam rocket attacks against Israel and the worst Qassam rocket strike in the Jewish state's history (in which dozens of Israel Defense Forces troops were injured) took place Sept. 11. Israel can strike Syrian targets with impunity. But during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah (which Syria helped arm) in southern Lebanon, Israel only went so far as to buzz
Syrian President Bashar al Assad's summer residence — so a strike would represent a significant escalation (although not an unprecedented step) for the IAF. Giving Israel cause for restraint, the al Assad government is stable and is something Israel can manage. Israel does not want regime change in Damascus because the resulting power vacuum would create the risk of an Islamist regime more aggressively opposed to Israel — something the Jewish state lacks the bandwidth to deal with at present.
The Syrian missile program, on the other hand, is comparatively far more advanced than its nuclear program and represents a much more tangible threat to Israel — especially given concerns that missiles could be passed to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Sources indicate that the IAF mission probably was linked to a recent missile import from North Korea, which has a long-standing
history, especially with Syria and Iran. Longer-range systems would allow Syria to place its missiles further from the reach of the IAF. Already, both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are in range of Syria's longer-range Scud missile variants, even from the vicinity of Tal al-Abiad and Dayr az Zawr. But Israel has long lived with the threat of Scud missiles pointed in its direction, so as with Syria's nuclear program, some other threshold would have to be crossed to warrant an Israeli strike, such as concerns about radically improved guidance systems. The Israeli-Syrian drama is playing out against the backdrop of continued threats of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. Tehran has made it clear that its response to any U.S. attack would involve strikes against Israel (no matter the Jewish state's level of involvement). Thus, Israel sees the need for increased vigilance against the potential for Iran and Iranian weapons (perhaps stationed in eastern Syria, where the alleged IAF incursion took place) to strike the heart of the Jewish state.