Israel sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime on Monday by stressing that air strikes across its northern border at the weekend were intended to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon rather than further destabilise the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Amid a cautious consensus that the bombing raids were unlikely to provoke an immediate response from Syria, or its allies Hezbollah and Iran, an Israeli politician close to the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the action was “against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime”.
The Israeli air strikes targeted stocks of Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 missiles, which have a 200-mile range and precision guidance systems held near Damascus, following unambiguous warnings that it would act to prevent sophisticated weapons reaching Hezbollah or jihadist fighters inside Syria. In line with custom, Israel has made no comment on the bombings.
Interviewed on Israel Radio, Tzachi Hanegbi said the aim of the military action was “to keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions are exposed, and refrain from tension with Syria”.
Netanyahu’s departure on a scheduled trip to China, from which he is not due to return until Friday, signalled “business as usual”, Hanegbi added. The defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, is running the government in the prime minister’s absence.
The Israeli Defence Forces’ northern commander, Major General Yair Golan, said there were no “winds of war” along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, although the military was ready and alert to deal with any retaliation.
Israel’s northern airspace, which was closed to commercial traffic following the air strikes, was expected to reopen on Monday. Earlier, two of its five Iron Dome batteries, the key plank of its missile defence system, were moved to the north of the country, to be positioned near the cities of Haifa and Safed.
However, some analysts warned that any retaliation was likely to be against Israeli targets abroad rather than a direct attack. “The Syrians and their allies can now swallow their pride and do nothing, or decide that they are fed up and launch an all-out clash with Israel. Both of these options are less likely than the third: to raise the bar in the secret war, which will be expressed in acts of terror, in attacking Israeli interests in the world and firing from the [Syrian] Golan Heights or from the Lebanese border,” wrote defence analyst Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth.
Despite a bellicose response from the Syrian government and its allies – including a statement from Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, that the Israeli air strikes were a “declaration of war” – its attention and resources are invested in clinging to power after two years of bitter and costly civil war.
Former Mossad director Danny Yatom said Assad “most likely won’t respond at this time. The Syrian army and the regime, which are almost completely preoccupied with survival, have no interest in opening a new front against Israel … On the other hand it could very well be that [Syria or Hezbollah or Iran] will carry out a secret operation and try to commit terror attacks against an Israeli or Jewish target somewhere in the world,” he told Israel Radio.
However, further Israeli air strikes could force Assad – or Hezbollah or Iran – to respond, which in turn could draw not just Israel, but the US and Europe, into a confrontation. The US gave Israel wholehearted backing for the weekend bombings, but was not given prior warning of Israel’s actions, according to an unnamed intelligence official.
China called for restraint in the region. “We oppose the use of military force and believe any country’s sovereignty should be respected,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”
Reports of casualties from the air strikes varied from fewer than 20 to several hundred. Russia Today quoted an unnamed senior Syrian military source as saying Israel had used depleted uranium shells in the operation.