Food for Thought: If There’s a NATO or American ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Syria, Can Israel’s Air Force Act on Intelligence and Strike Weapons Transfers?

Now that the Obama Administration has publicly pointed the finger of blame at the Assad regime in Damascus — saying its use of the nerve gas sarin killed over 100 people, and the U.S. intends to respond with new steps to help the rebels — here’s some food for thought for those who follow Israel’s covert defense: Will Israel be able to continue attacking weapons sites in Syria, and convoys believed to be heading toward the Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Below, please find what we published here on May 11:

Though the Israeli government has mostly maintained official silence – neither confirming nor denying – there are sufficient hints to conclude that three aerial attacks this year, on sensitive military facilities and on Hezbollah and Iranian assets in Syria, were carried out by the Israeli Air Force.

The first, in January, destroyed a convoy loaded with Russian made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The targets struck in early May included depots of medium-range surface-to-surface missiles also prepared for transfer to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Another target was Jamraya, Syria’s most secretive military R&D center. It is situated in northwest Damascus, the Syrian capital. Israeli intelligence sources tell us that the facility housed sensitive Syrian research on chemical weapons as well as long-range guided missiles.

All three attacks illustrate a pattern. They certainly suggest that Israel has excellent, precise intelligence. It must have been gathered over months and even years of painstaking work from agents on the ground, communications intercepts, aerial reconnaissance, and satellite imagery.

CNN video showed smoke and fire from apparent Israeli Air Force strikes inside Syria (used in coverage)

Politically and diplomatically, the attacks also highlight the determination of the Israeli government not to repeat past mistakes. Since 1996, Israel ignored the systematic, ongoing transfer of Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah via Syria.

As a result of this choice – and even after a U.N. Security Council resolution demanded the disarmament of Hezbollah and an end to the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon – Assad’s terrorist allies amassed more than 40,000 rockets and missiles of all types and ranges. Their arsenal included long-range missiles capable of hitting almost every target in Israel: cities, military bases, power stations, and perhaps even the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

The previous government, still in power during the January air strike, and the new coalition (still headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) decided that enough is enough.

Israel is determined to stop shipments of weaponry systems it calls “game changing.” They include Russian made anti-aircraft missiles, Russian made surface-to-sea missiles, and the Iranian made Fateh-110 (Victory) and M-600 surface missiles. Those can carry both conventional and chemical warheads.

Israel’s decision to carry out air strikes, albeit without making a public announcement, is based on a calculated risk. It assumes that the Assad regime is too weak to respond, and that neither Iran nor Hezbollah has the desire to escalate the situation.

There is the risk that repeatedly hitting a weakened President Bashar al-Assad will goad him to retaliate for the sake of his personal honor and national pride.  But if he fires rockets into Israel or gives the “green light” to Palestinian proxies or Hezbollah terrorists to strike Israelis, Assad and his backers in Tehran know that Israel would respond forcefully.

There is much talk, lately, of “red lines” in the Syria crisis. Israel, in effect, must guess what are Assad’s limits of tolerance. Israeli officials are  adamant that their country is not aiming at destabilizing the Syrian regime. But Israeli Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon has hinted that further actions remain possible.

While it is unclear if the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis understands that years of impunity regarding arms shipments have come to an end, there are also lessons from the Israeli Air Force attacks that can affect Israel’s relations with the United States.

The region assumes that raids by the IAF were coordinated with the Obama Administration — in part to dispel criticism that President Obama has done nothing to punish Assad, even though the Obama “red line” was violated when chemical weapons were used against rebels and civilians in Syria.

Still, the gambit is highly risky. Israel’s successful air operations, after all, undermine Administration arguments regarding the sophistication of Syrian air defenses. U.S. officials repeatedly say, “Syria wouldn’t be as easy as Libya was,” hinting at their concern that U.S. or NATO planes trying to carry out missions in Syrian air space might be shot down.

If Israel’s pilots could penetrate into Syria, surely the United States Air Force or NATO would be capable of enforcing a non-fly zone. Grounding Assad’s warplanes and helicopters would, at least, reduce the bloodshed inside his suffering country.

June 13, 2013

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