Consequences of Israel's attack on Syria will be lasting
Just when it seemed as though Israel was judiciously keeping out of the Arab uprisings, the country stepped in. Having kept mostly silent for almost two years, apart from some generic "Assad must step down" type statements, Israel began to speak out a few months ago, about chemical and other weapons from Syria getting into the wrong hands, Hizbollah. Then, with an apparent green light from the US, the nation launched air strikes, apparently at a weapons research centre and perhaps also a convoy of anti-aircraft batteries said to be en route to Hizbollah.
Some analysts, such as Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, have described this action in Syria as "win-win". The idea is that both the US and Israel achieved a shared goal of striking at Syria's chemical weapons store, while Syrian rebels would be happy at the thought that high-grade munitions did not reach Hizbollah, which might use such supplies against the rebels in the future.
That's a tidy picture, but it glosses over the complications and consequences of Israel's attack.
One aspect was highlighted by Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, who gave the clearest indication of Israel's responsibility for the raids at a meeting in Munich last Sunday. The aerial raid, which Syria had reported as targeting a "research centre" near Damascus, Mr Barak said, offered "proof that when we say something we mean it". That's a reference to the "red lines" Israel has issued over previous weeks, backed up by the US, regarding any transfer of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal to Hizbollah.
Shlomo Brom of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, elaborates: "If Israel hadn't attacked, it would lose credibility." If Israel were seen to let Syria cross those red lines, it would, Dr Brom says, "make any threats we put on the table meaningless". This is the logic of Israel's pre-emptive, deterrence effect in action.
But how is that heard in the region? "It's like winning the battle and losing the war," says Alon Liel, former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry and former ambassador to South Africa. It may have been a successful attack, and there may have been watertight security reasoning behind it, he says. "But we lose points with these attacks in the long run because we are seen as a trigger-happy country that has no limits … The overall picture is that the region hates us more and more, and the consensus is that Israel is a negative force and not really part of the region."
That's evident in the immediate reaction to those strikes. Turkey, already estranged from its former ally Israel, accused the country of waging "state terrorism" in the attack, violating international law. Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "Those who have been treating Israel like a spoilt child should expect anything from them at any time."
If Israel caused a trial separation with Turkey when it launched its devastating assault on Gaza in late 2008, then it probably just signed the divorce papers with this air strike in Syria. Clearly Israel calculated that no regional player would be in a position to retaliate right now. And that may be accurate. But it doesn't mean that the outrage and resentment won't be filed away for future use.
Could Israel behave any differently? Mr Liel thinks that the country has other options. "First of all we could offer help and shelter to the refugees from Syria," he says. "This terrible massacre is taking place so near to us, and yet we do nothing." Mr Liel thinks that the rebels are beyond the stage where they would reject such humanitarian assistance from Israel. But even if such an offer were refused, the act of merely suggesting it would be significant, changing the dynamic of Israel's place in the region.
In fact, Israeli non-governmental organisations are already providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, but in a low-key and distinctly unofficial capacity.
But that's not enough. "The state of Israel should be ready to open its border with Syria to refugees, on humanitarian grounds, and also to offer our assistance to Jordan and Turkey if they need help with refugees," says Mr Liel. Both those countries have already taken in some of the 787,000 registered Syrian refugees created by the bloody turmoil in Syria, and the estimated 5,000 the UN says are now leaving the country each day.
Increasing aid, however, is not the prevalent view within Israel's government and security establishment, where the signals are of intentions to strike Syrian targets again, if necessary. Israel is clearly planning for a post-Assad Syria: there has been talk of creating a 16 kilometre "buffer zone" inside Syria, to keep radical groups at bay. Moreover, the country has moved three Iron Dome missile interceptors to the Syrian border, where it is erecting a new security fence similar to the one along the Sinai border with Egypt.
Israel is working to keep hostile groups out - but in so doing, it is also further fencing itself in.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands
On Twitter: @rachshabi
Published: February 10, 2013 04:00 AM