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ANALYSIS: Israel’s airstrikes on Syria give notice to Iran, U.S.

- - Friday, May 10, 2013

JERUSALEM — Israel's recent airstrikes on Syria not only stopped the delivery of arms to its sworn enemy Hezbollah in Lebanon but also gave notice to the Obama administration and Iran that the Jewish state has the will and the means to act unilaterally to protect its interests in the volatile Middle East.

Using accurate intelligence and precision munitions, Israeli warplanes flying in Lebanese airspace reportedly fired missiles early Sunday on caches of weapons outside the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The immediate goal was to eliminate shipments of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles that were stored in warehouses before being trucked to Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon. The warehouses were apparently the targets of three separate Israeli missile attacks early Sunday and of a smaller attack two nights earlier.

Israel struck when Syria's regime, deeply embroiled in a civil war, was highly unlikely to do anything about it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not even bother postponing a planned week-long visit to China, and took off for Beijing a few hours after the airstrikes.

Israeli officials have long been mulling a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent the Islamic republic from developing an atomic weapon. The U.S. and other Western nations have advocated restraint to allow economic sanctions against Tehran to squeeze the Iranian economy and alter its leaders' actions.

Iran, whose leaders have called for Israel's destruction, has insisted that its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes, yet has refused to allow international inspectors to examine its facilities.

Israel's airstrikes served as a reminder, particularly to Iran, that the Jewish state has intelligence capable of silently keeping track of its enemies, operational capabilities to execute complex missions and the national will to do so if necessary.

The strikes also showed Washington that effective operations in murky circumstances can be carried out without the sky falling in.

It is doubtful that Israel is attempting to push the Obama administration to intervene in Syria — Jerusalem itself is of two minds about whether the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad would be a good thing.

But Jerusalem definitely hopes that Washington will be prepared for military action against Iran if the latter does not halt its march to the bomb.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon indicated this week that the attacks represent a new policy regarding the blocking of advanced weaponry destined for the militant group Hezbollah.

"We have made clear what our interests are," he said. "We have red lines and will not give up on them."

Israel had not attempted to interdict tens of thousands of rockets that flowed from Syria to Hezbollah in the past few years. Mr. Ya'alon's terse statement indicated that something has changed.

Analysts have speculated that the missile shipment was part of an Iranian effort to push through advanced armaments to Hezbollah as quickly as possible for fear that Mr. Assad's fall could sever the link between Tehran and Hezbollah.

By indicating its intention to act again if its  red lines are crossed Israel has made itself a player-in-waiting in the Syrian saga, with potentially far-reaching consequences.

For four decades, Israel refrained from attacks on Syria which, in turn, kept its border with Israel perfectly peaceful.

There was one exception in 2007, when Israeli planes destroyed a  secret nuclear facility being built in a remote part of Syria. In a noteworthy example of mutual self-restraint, Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack and Syria denied construction of a nuclear facility.

The same self-restraint was displayed last Friday when Israel did not announce its first attack and Syria did not report it.

After the dramatic sound-and-light show early Sunday two miles from Mr. Assad's palace, national honor obliged him to warn that if Israel attacks again Syria would respond.

Israeli analysts believe that any Syrian response would be directed at the sparsely populated Golan Heights where the chances of heavy Israeli casualties, and a strong Israeli counter-strike, are smallest.

Hezbollah's rocket and missile arsenal is Teheran's first line of defense against an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Tehran sees the missiles as a deterrent that would make Israel hesitate before striking and a potent military asset if war does break out. The highly accurate Fateh-110 missiles pose a formidable threat in themselves to Israeli air bases and vital infrastructure like power stations, not to mention population centers.

As the situation in Syria deteriorates, the entire region is shifting restlessly.

"Everyone will be reassessing their position now, including Russia and America, Sunnis and Shiites," said Uzi Rabi, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "The whole region is moving into a new era through the back door of the Arab Spring."