The possibility of an imminent U.S. military strike on Syria brings with it real danger that Iran-backed Hezbollah might respond by sending rockets into Israel — or that Israel might exploit the development to conduct strikes of its own against Iran, Middle East analysts monitoring the situation said Thursday.
Most agree that the limited scope of a potential strike being telegraphed this week by Washington seems unlikely to quickly trigger either scenario. But the deliberateness with which the Obama administration is moving toward the strike suggests a deep debate in the White House over the extent to which U.S. missiles might unleash an unwanted escalation.
If an American strike on Syria is too big, Iran could cite the attack as justification for retaliation. Based on statements during recent days by Iranian leaders, that could mean firing rockets into Israel from the Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon — a development likely to be used in turn by Israel as its own justification to hit back at Hezbollah positions inside Syria, or at Iran directly.
The Obama administration has attempted to steer media attention away from such risks this week, offering only vague statements about the factors involved in planning a possible military strike on Syria.
“When the president and his team are looking at potential courses of action, we take into account a wide range of possible consequences,” Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday. “We have friends and allies and partners in the region, and all of those are factors playing into a potential course of action.”
The ultimate consequences of a military strike are difficult to predict.
“What counts here is the scale of the American attack,” said Uzi Rabi, head of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. Mr. Rabi suggests the Obama administration’s decision-making process is weighted with the heavy calculus of trying to prevent military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad from future use of chemical weapons without being drawn too deeply into the civil war.
The result, according to Mr. Rabi, is that there is now “a tacit agreement among everybody to have a very limited attack to punish Bashar for using chemical weapons.”
“Iran, Russia and Hezbollah all know that if it’s a kind of punitive act by the United States, then this is something they are willing to absorb,” he said. “They’re not going to do something dramatic in response to a limited attack by the U.S., but if the U.S. goes further and hits strategic sights inside Syria … it could give them reason to hit Israel.
“It’s a dicey situation,” added Lt. Col. Gordon D. Miller, a Marine presently serving as a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington. “If Israel were to conduct follow-on exploitation strikes or something like it, that could change the tone of the entire situation away from one that’s currently focused on chemical weapons.”
Col. Miller, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Defense Department, added that “the fact that the rhetoric is already starting to flow” this week between Tehran and Jerusalem also must be weighed by U.S. officials in any decision on Syria.
“The actions have to take into consideration worst consequences,” he said.
“The Americans will sustain damage like when they interfered in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted by the Islamic republic’s Fars News Agency on Wednesday.
“Starting this fire will be like a spark in a large store of gunpowder, with unclear and unspecified outcomes and consequences,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
The warning followed similar threats Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who asserted, after meeting with his security advisers, that Israel “is ready for any scenario.”
“We are not part of the civil war in Syria,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “But if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond in strength.”
The specter of such high-stakes posturing appeared to hang Thursday over the Obama administration, which has spent much of this week trying to assure the American public and the international community of the limited scope of a possible strike.
“Nobody’s talking about regime change through military options in Syria,” Ms. Harf told reporters at the State Department on Thursday.
Meanwhile, some foreign policy insiders in Washington say that privately, Israel is actually wary of inflaming tensions with Iran at a time when Tehran appears to be on the verge of caving to Western sanctions aimed at containing its nuclear program.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may be more likely than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to pursue positive nuclear negotiations with the West, where fears have mounted in recent years that Tehran is close to developing a warhead. Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful.
“Israel does not want to be viewed as jamming the international negotiations with a new Iranian leader who claims to be pragmatic,” said David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s hard for me to see Israel taking a step that is bound to create a lot of international contentiousness at this juncture.”
At the same time, Mr. Makovsky said: “The U.S. has telegraphed very publicly that it doesn’t see these strikes [on Syria] as a way of trying to bring the U.S. into the war and, therefore, its very possible the Iranians just ride it out.”