by Stephen Bryen
[Author’s Note 3 Feb. 2013: Since this article was written there have been many news stories on the air strikes against Syrian assets. The Syrians say there was no attack on any SA-17 missile convoy; instead they say that Israel hit the “research” facility and “killed civilians.” Syrian rebel sources say that the Israelis blanked out the Syrian air defenses. Meanwhile the U.S. has only confirmed the Israeli strike on the convoy and not on the research facility, and Israel has put out vague hints that it carried out actions threatening Israel’s security. Syria has also put out a video of the strike on the compound. The video shows the destruction of a number of vehicles, trucks, an SA-17 launcher vehicle, and many cars. The video also shows the interior of a lab and an office. All the images either are the result of anti-personnel bombs or machine gun fire. None of these are the types of weapons Israel would use –if it wanted to destroy the facility it would have done so. Consequently, the thesis of the article below seems even stronger than when it was written, namely that Israel took out a convoy of SA-17’s. The attack on the so-called research facility was probably done by the rebels and, not wanting to give them any credit, Syria blamed it on Israel when Israel conveniently destroyed the SA-17 convoy. This stand by Syria also deflects the argument that Syria was in direct violation of UN Resolutions in providing missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.]
Russia and Iran are unreservedly supporting the Syrian regime, providing weapons, military advice and advisers, and, insofar as Iran is concerned, military forces. On top of this, Iran’s surrogate, Hezbollah, is providing direct military help to the regime’s thugs, and are being used against resistance targets inside Syria.
In the midst of this mess, the Syrian regime has lost control of important areas of the country and, despite wanton killings, has failed to cow the uprising.
The Russians have put a few thousand troops offshore Syria, ostensibly to assist in evacuating Russian dependents. As a recent Russian “airlift” out of Lebanon showed, very few Russian dependents have taken up any offer to leave Syria. The Russian forces are there for one of two reasons –either to standby in case it is necessary to pull Syrian officials out of the country (Assad has already moved out of Damascus and is in helicopter range of the Russian ships), or to help the regime with its 2,000 marines stationed on these ships.
Meanwhile the status of Syria’s weapons stockpiles has grown precarious, and most worrisome are its toxic chemical weapons, especially nerve gas. Some of these stockpiles are in range of the rebels, and the U.S., Israel and many other countries have gone public with concern about security for these WMD’s.
On Wednesday, January 30th (or the night before), it was reported from Lebanon that Israel had flown a dozen or more sorties over Lebanese territory along the Syrian border. Additional reports, also coming from Lebanon and recently confirmed by the U.S., say that Israel attacked a convoy heading from Syria into Lebanon, bound for Hezbollah.
The flow of weapons through Syria to Hezbollah has been going on for a long time. It is how Hezbollah has acquired missiles it uses to bombard Israel.
But something obviously changed for the worse, in Israel’s view. Either more advanced surface to surface missiles were being delivered to Hezbollah or advanced ground to air missiles (officially known as SA-17’s and made only in Russia).
For quite a few months it has been getting clearer and clearer that the Iranians, probably with Russian backing, have been posturing to create a renewed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
Advanced missiles that could be equipped with chemical warheads, and advanced ground to air missiles, look to be part of what Hezbollah would need to initiate another war with Israel.
What purpose would a war with Israel have? There are two theories.
The first is that by getting Israel locked into a war with Hezbollah, a second front with Hamas and Gaza would open and the focus of attention would be on that conflict, deflecting any possible U.S.-sponsored intervention in Syria.
The second theory is that not only is the Syrian regime under severe stress, but the Ahmadinejad government in Iran is also wobbling and could fall. Rumors are about, and one of them is that Ahmadinejad needs some kind of external “success” to head off his liquidation. Whacking Israel could be the kind of “triumph” he needs to stay in power and remain alive.
These two theories are not mutually exclusive. Even Russia, which is playing a double or triple game, could somehow benefit if they could salvage, or help salvage, the Syrian regime.
But the problem with all of this is that it is a gamble that is ruthless as it is dangerous. Given current circumstances, Israel might achieve a great deal if as a result it squashes Hezbollah and wipes out the Syrian Air Force in the bargain.
Today the Syrians, and the Russians, started screaming that Israel had attacked a chemical weapons precursor facility near Damascus. According to the Syrian “explanation”, Israel’s aircraft flew “under the radar” and successfully hit the facility killing a guard and a workman. The Russians made the extraordinary claim that Israel had violated UN resolutions and should be called to account.
It is impossible that Israeli aircraft can fly around Damascus without activating Syria’s extensive missile defense network. This network, put there by the Russians and probably with Russian technicians and operators, would have responded and Syrian Air Force planes, busy killing innocent civilians, would have been scrambled. It never happened.
In fact only one airplane, well after the fact, a MIG 31, was flown toward Israel near the Golan Heights, but never crossed into Israeli territory. When it was “painted” by Israeli radar, the MIG turned right, flew to the coast, and headed home. It was just there, it seems, to try to make the fake Syrian-Russian story a little more real.
One could, playing on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, say that “the Russians and the Syrians doth protest too much, methinks.” In fact, sending a convoy loaded with military hardware to Hezbollah is a direct violation of UN Resolution 1701 (for what it is worth).
But the real matter is whether the Syrians, Iranians and Russians will continue to try and implement the confrontation strategy they started to execute in shipping advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Israel has made clear that it will respond to these provocations and that it is on alert. There won’t be any surprise. And the Syrians must recognize that there is a tipping point in this strategy, that it could result in the annihilation not only of their chemical stocks, but also their Air Force, command and control network, and other defenses. If a gaping hole is ripped through these assets, the Syrian regime will cease to exist.