December 17, 2018

A new Assad? Understanding what just happened in Syria

As we consider the clash between Israel and Syria in the last couple of days, we must recount the events in the right order:

First — Syria shoots anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli airplanes flying over Lebanon.

Second — Israel retaliates by attacking a missile battery in Syria, destroying its radar.

Third — Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu lands in Israel for a planned visit.

Fourth — Assad warns Israel of “serious repercussions.”

All this happened in one day — Monday. We had a Syrian attack; an impressively prompt Israeli response (you’ll understand how impressive it is if you consider the effort it took to plan, coordinate and execute); the resulting threats; and the beginning of a diplomatic visit (the visit continues today).

Why did this happen and what will be the consequences? This will not be clear within one day.

We do know some things, though:

We know that the Syrian battery did something that the Syrians had not done in years — attacking Israeli fighters even though they were not flying over Syria. But we must ask: Was the attack planned and approved by the higher authorities in Syria in the way it was carried out? In other words, did Assad decide to go back to the days when Syria considered the Lebanese skies as its own responsibility?

We know that the Russians were notified. They did not publically criticize Israel — nor Syria — for its actions. But we must ask: Will they act to restrain Syria (by telling Assad he cannot shoot at Israeli fighters in such a way), or will they act to restrain Israel (by warning it not to repeat such attacks)?

We know that there are red lines that Israel insists on enforcing — no strategic weapons to Hezbollah is one of them — and that its retaliatory action against the Syrian battery is consistent with its actions in recent years. But we must ask: Is Syria trying to change the rules of the game in Lebanon and Syria?

We know that in the last couple of years Assad has been too busy, and too insecure, to pick a fight with Israel as he was fighting for his regime’s survival. But we must ask: Is this changing? Will the fact that Assad is pretty much secure in his seat now change his approach to Israel’s actions and make him bolder and less forgiving?

We must ask all these questions because while this event in Syria could be a short episode of little consequence, contained and forgotten within a few days, it could also be a prelude to a long, and possibly bloody, battle for rewriting the rules that have kept the Syrian-Israeli border relatively quiet for many years. With Iran, Hezbollah and Assad on one side, Israel on the other and Russia in between, this battle can quickly deteriorate.