Israel Steps Into Syria

What the IDF Air Strike Means for the Conflict

An Israeli soldier patrols along the Israeli-Syrian border. Ronen Zvulun / Courtesy Reuters

Last week, after two years of watching the Syria crisis unfold with quiet unease, Israel departed from its policy of restraint and staged an aerial raid near Damascus. The facts are still murky. Israel issued no statement and took no responsibility for the strike, although Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at a major security conference in Munich, came close to conceding involvement. The Syrian government, however, was swift to announce and condemn an Israeli raid on a "research center" in the vicinity of Damascus, as did the regime's allies, Iran and Hezbollah. The international and Israeli press speculated that Israel had attacked a convoy of game-changing ground-to-air missiles that were about to be transferred by Syria to Hezbollah and that may have been stationed in that "research center" on their way to Lebanon. 

The event underlined a curious aspect of the unfolding Syrian crisis: that unlike Syria's other four neighbors -- Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan -- Israel has remained largely uninvolved in the country's affairs, albeit with two noteworthy exceptions. First, in May 2011, hundreds of Palestinians crossed the undefended cease-fire line into the Golan Heights, with the encouragement, or at least the tacit agreement, of the Syrian authorities. Second, in November of that year, a few mortar shells fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights. Both incidents proved to be insignificant, especially compared with the gravity of the Syrian civil war and its impact on regional and global politics.

Israel's passive stance did not reflect a lack of interest in the future of Syria and President Bashar al-Assad's regime. On the contrary, Israeli policymakers and analysts are acutely aware of the massive repercussions that Assad's fall would have for Israeli security. But they also know that Israel's ability to affect Syria's domestic policy is limited, and that any Israeli intervention would deal great damage to the opposition. From the very outset of the conflict, Assad and his spokesmen have tried to depict the rebellion not as an authentic

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