How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 domestic uprising but as a conspiracy hatched by such external enemies as the United States and Israel. An Israeli intervention, even one with ostensibly humanitarian goals, would be seized upon by the regime and presented as proof that its position had been vindicated.
Although Israel has remained passive, it has closely monitored the course of events in Syria. It has been worried by several potential negative outcomes: that the Assad regime could be replaced by an Islamist, perhaps even a jihadist, one; that the regime's fall could lead to anarchy, and that jihadists might launch terror attacks against Israel from north of the Golan Heights; that the regime could transfer some of its chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah, or that such stockpiles could fall into the hands of radical rebels; and finally, that the regime itself, when its death knell has sounded, could fire missiles into Israel in a final act of Samson-like glory. In more general terms, Israel has feared that the regime and its allies might try to transform the crisis into another conflict with Israel. Israel has acted tacitly, often in coordination with Washington, in order to forestall some of these developments. On several occasions, it has released public statements regarding its "redlines" in the Syrian crisis.
The transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah has been one of these redlines. It seems that at the end of January, Israel's leaders came to the conclusion that such a transfer was about to take place and decided to act. They were fully aware of the downside of a strike: the regime was likely to take political advantage of Israel's military action, and the prospect of a response by Syria or Hezbollah and the provocation of a larger crisis could not be ruled out.
Such scenarios materialized only in part. The Syrian regime launched a full-scale propaganda campaign designed to depict the Israeli raid as a major component of the current crisis and portray the conflict as an Arab-Israeli one, not a Syrian civil war.
Iran and Hezbollah took a similar line and issued vague threats of retaliation. Assad's regime, though, made it clear that it did not intend to respond with force. Syria's minister of defense indicated that Damascus did not retaliate because Israel's action was itself a retaliation for the damages inflicted on Israel by Syria. The whole episode stands in sharp contrast to the course of events in September 2007, when Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor that North Korea had been building for Syria. Israel kept silent in order to help Assad avoid the need to retaliate, and Assad played the same game. This time around, Assad had every interest in playing up the Israeli attack -- but he is still proceeding cautiously. The political dividends of stoking tension with Israel are obvious, but given the sorry state of Syria's armed forces, a military collision with Israel could provide the rebels with the golden opportunity that has eluded them so far.
It is difficult to determine at this time how successful Israel's raid was. The political fallout has been limited, and the course of the Syrian civil war has not been affected. But the strike has not necessarily had the deterrent effect Israel sought, and the regime and its allies may still make further efforts to transfer sophisticated weapons systems to Hezbollah.
The current episode may well fade into memory, but there is still a real danger of a broader crisis drawing Israel more fully into the Syrian morass. Assad could still try to transfer sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, and the future of the Syrian arsenal, including stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, is still in question. Israel may decide to act again, and if it does, Syria, Hezbollah, or Iran could well retaliate. Their calculus in such an event would be determined by the state of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah's predicament in Lebanon, and the state of Iran's give-and-take with the United States and its allies over the Iranian nuclear issue. Their response, if any, would be more likely come in the form of a terrorist attack, such as the one perpetrated by Hezbollah against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, rather than a conventional military attack.
Given these threats to regional stability, the need for the United States to take the lead in seeking a resolution to the Syrian crisis has never been more acute. U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to visit the region this spring and include the Syrian crisis on his agenda is a step in the right direction.