ANALYSIS

An Israeli man tries on a gas mask from a distribution center at a shopping center in Pisgat Zeev in East Jerusalem.

Tension in the air … an Israeli tries on a gas mask in East Jerusalem. Syria has accused Israel of Wednesday's air strike, increasing the likelihood of retaliation. Photo: AFP

JERUSALEM: Israeli officials are maintaining a stony silence about their air strike in Syrian territory on Wednesday, a tactic experts say is part of a longstanding strategy to give targeted countries face-saving opportunities to avoid conflict escalation.

But Syria's own confirmation of the attack, followed by condemnation not only by Iran and Hezbollah but also by Russia, may have undercut that effort, analysts say, increasing the likelihood of retaliation, which could prompt further Israeli attacks.

''From the moment they chose to say Israel did something, it means someone has to do something after that,'' Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council and a longtime military leader, said. ''Contrary to what I could hope and believe yesterday, that this round of events would end soon, now I am much less confident.''

The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister warned on Thursday that Israel's strike would lead to ''grave consequences for Tel Aviv'', while the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the strike ''blatantly violates the United Nations charter and is unacceptable and unjustified, whatever its motives''.

Israel has not acknowledged the attack, which US officials say hit a convoy before dawn on Wednesday that was ferrying sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles called SA-17s to Lebanon.

The Syrians and their allies said the target was actually a scientific research facility in the Damascus suburbs. It remains unclear whether there was in fact one strike or two, and what involvement the research outpost might have had in weapons production or storage for Syria or Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite party that has long fought against Israel.

 

Israel's red line

Most experts agree that Syria, Hezbollah and Israel each have strong reasons to want to avoid a new active conflict right now: the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is fighting for survival in a violent and chaotic civil war; Hezbollah is struggling for political legitimacy at home and battling its label as a terrorist organisation internationally; and Israel is trying to keep its head down in an increasingly volatile region.

But it is equally clear Hezbollah desperately wants to upgrade its arsenal in the hope of changing the parameters for any future engagement with the Israeli military, and that Israel is determined to stop it. Hezbollah is perhaps even more anxious to gird itself for future challenges to its primacy in Lebanon, especially if a Sunni-led revolution triumphs next door in Syria.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his deputies said loud and clear in the days leading up to the strike that they saw any transfer of Syria's extensive cache of chemical weapons, or of sophisticated conventional weapons systems, as a ''red line'' that would prompt action. Now that it has followed through on that threat, even without acknowledging it, analysts expect Israel to similarly target any future convoys attempting the same feat.

''Once this red line has been crossed, it's definitely going to be crossed time and again from now on, especially as the situation of the Assad regime will deteriorate,'' Boaz Ganor, the head of the international institute for counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, said. ''They will do the utmost to gain control of those weapons. In that case, I don't see why Israel wouldn't have the same type of calculation that Israel had two days ago into the future.''

Dr Ganor said the US and Europe should be as concerned as Israel, because Syria's chemical weapons could end up, not with Hezbollah, but in the hands of organisations such as al-Qaeda or its proxies.

''If one organisation will put their hands on this arsenal, then it will change hands in no time and we'll see it all over the world,'' he said.

Eyal Zisser, a historian at Tel Aviv University who specialises in Syria and Lebanon, said that if there was no retaliation to Wednesday's air strike, ''why not repeat it? For Israel it's going to be the practice.''

 

Hitting Hezbollah

Israel's silence on the air strike was reminiscent of its posture after it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 - an attack it has never acknowledged, although many officials discuss it with winks and nods. But in that case, Assad bought into the de-escalation strategy by saying the attack had hit an unused - and implicitly unimportant - military building, relieving the pressure for a response.

Syria and Israel are technically at war, although there has long been a wary calm along the decades-old armistice line. Although Wednesday's strike was on Syrian soil, analysts said its actual goal was to send a signal to Hezbollah.

''Israel has tried very hard not to take part in all of what happens in Syria, and I don't think we will start to be involved now,'' Dan Harel, a former deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, said. ''Israel is trying to stay within its own borders, look outside, not be involved - just trying not to let what happens in Syria change the equation vis-a-vis Lebanon.''

The use of either chemical weapons or complex conventional ones such as the Russian-made SA-17s would be a game changer in what most here see as the inevitable next war with Hezbollah.

Since the two sides last clashed in 2006, Hezbollah is believed to have increased its missile stash to more than 50,000 from perhaps 15,000, including some long-range ones that can hit any part of Israel. But Israel is well-prepared to defend against even an intense barrage of such rockets. On the other hand, if Hezbollah gained the ability to curtail Israel's relatively free rein in Lebanese airspace, that would truly alter the landscape.

''If they manage to bring down an Israeli plane, it would have two pilots - for them it's as if they won the war,'' Yoram Schweitzer, a senior research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said of Hezbollah.

 

Fear on the frontier

As experts debated the likelihood of retaliation by Syria, Hezbollah or Iran on Israeli radio and television, residents in the north rushed to get gas masks as municipal workers checked bomb shelters' electricity and security and reviewed emergency procedures.

Nissim Malka, the mayor of Kiryat Shmona, a town of about 23,000 near the Lebanon border that withstood more than 1000 rocket attacks in 2006, said his office had been flooded with calls about whether children should go to school, businesses should close and weddings should proceed.

''Every door slamming made people jump,'' he said.

The New York Times