May 6, 2013 | 15:46 GMT

2 mins read

Syria: Unintended Consequences of Israeli Airstrikes

Emil Salman - Pool/Getty Images

The latest Israeli airstrikes on Syria were predicated on two key factors. First, the Syrian regime is weakening so much that it cannot control its territory and, by extension, its weapons stockpiles could fall into the hands of non-state actors such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda. Second, Israeli intelligence discovered that a shipment of Iranian-made Fateh-110 short-range tactical ballistic missiles was being delivered to Hezbollah. Logistically it is difficult to prevent advanced weapons systems, particularly chemical agents, from proliferating once a regime has lost control of them, so further preventive strikes can be expected.

For its part, Syria has responded by saying any additional attacks from Israel will incur immediate retaliation. Syrian President Bashar al Assad reportedly sent a message to Washington (via Moscow), in which he authorized the use of ground-to-ground and ground-to-air missiles in the event of such retaliation. However, Syria lacks the military capability to follow through on its threats. 

Airstrikes on Syrian soil belie the fact that Israel is not taking sides in the Syrian civil war. As far as Israel is concerned, regime loyalists and the various rebel militias both threaten Israeli national security. And in some ways, it is in Israel's interest to prolong the collapse of the al Assad regime and to further the military stalemate: Doing so ensures that the conflict remains confined to Syria as much as possible.

But it is unclear whether Israel can actually achieve this. Even the United States, were it to get involved militarily, could not successfully confine the violence to Syria. Thus the limited airstrikes, which will likely continue as long as deemed necessary, are preventive measures rather than signs of assistance. Any future strikes likewise would be meant to mitigate risks as they appear.

However, any intervention that targets the Syrian regime and its allies has unintended consequences. For example, it enables al Assad and his allies to shape regional perceptions — namely, that Israel and the rebels are fighting together. This complicates matters for rebels and their affiliate groups, which along with many Arab states have condemned the Israeli airstrikes.

The Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah would like to use this situation to their advantage. They believe drawing Israel into the conflict would be a useful way to ease the rebellion's pressure on them. Until these latest Israeli strikes, provoking Israel could also have been seen as too self-serving. But now that Israel has intervened on its own, there is an opportunity to escalate the situation and elicit a deeper Israeli involvement in Syria.

Their reasoning is that it would be difficult for the rebels to fight the Syrian regime if the country were under attack from Israel. But that calculation entails large risks, which would further undermine the already tenuous positions of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. It is unclear whether the al Assad regime and its allies would be willing to take those risks.  

They would like to see some Sunni jihadist groups operating in Syria begin targeting Israel in an effort to divide the rebels' attention. Whether that will happen remains unclear. But the Israeli strikes have created a situation in which the Syrian civil war, heretofore a regional sectarian struggle, could turn into a wider international conflict.

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