By William Tucker
Multiple media reports on January 30th, 2013, stated that the Israeli air force had struck a convoy of missiles on the Syrian-Lebanese border. As the day went on other news outlets began reporting that the target was a fixed military facility near Damascus that was still under control of the Assad regime. It didn’t take long before speculation became mixed with unverified reports in this situation, but what was really curious was the lack of verifiable facts surrounding the event. The only sources of information were of the unnamed variety stemming from western intelligence agencies, or Israeli sources. Eventually, confirmation arrived from an unlikely source – the Syrian regime via the state run news outlet SANA. The Assad regime eventually stated that, “Israeli fighter jets violated our airspace at dawn today and carried out a direct strike on a scientific research center in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defense.” Following the typical refrain emanating from Damascus since the beginning of the uprising, the regime stated that the raid came “after terrorist groups made several failed attempts in the past months to take control of the site.” The site is question is the Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques, or the Scientific Studies and Research Center which is home to much of the new research conducted on nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile-related technologies according to Jane’s Intelligence Service. The nature of this facility doesn’t exactly lend itself to the public domain, but open source information from the U.S. government does support the claim form Jane’s.
While the Assad regime did verify that the research facility was struck, it didn’t speak of any further strikes. Israeli proclamations prior to the airstrikes may lend some insight into the reports of a convoy traveling to Lebanon which was reportedly struck, but not addressed by the Assad regime. Furthermore, news organizations have reported that Israel has moved several missile defense batteries towards the shared border with Lebanon suggesting that Jerusalem is concerned over developments in Syria and Lebanon. The rhetoric from the Israelis have also expressed concern over the possibility of nonconventional weapons falling into the wrong hands. It is certainly possible that there were missiles in the complex that was struck, or perhaps on their way to Lebanon, but there is no concrete information at this time. Regardless, this activity does seem to dovetail quite nicely with the recent strikes, but there’s more to it. Assad has been longing for his internal conflict to take on a more regional dimension. The thought is if he can draw in other nations, especially Israel, he’ll then be in a better position to cultivate allies and bolster his political fortunes. The problem with this thought process is that it sounds good on paper, but has little chance of working. Evidence of this is the muted response to the Israeli strike – a strike that was rather risky for Israel.
In the midst of the Syrian civil war, Turkey and several of the Gulf States have been supporting the predominately Sunni rebels against Assad as a blocking measure against Iranian ambitions. Though Israel chose to destroy the site to both deny the Assad regime and the rebels the use of these unconventional weapons, this also benefits the Gulf states that have aligned against Assad. Saudi Arabia has allegedly been sending fighters to Syria to fight against Assad. While many foreign fighters will perish in the fight, there are those that will likely survive the war and look to continue their struggle elsewhere. The last thing Saudi Arabia, or any of the Gulf states, wants is to face former fighters that have fighting experience and access to unconventional weapons. It’s also important to remember that these weapons in the hands of Hezbollah would also work against the regional interests of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf states. Ultimately, each player is looking out for their own self interest, but for now some interests will overlap. As the Syrian stalemate starts to give way these overlapping interests will diminish and a new competition will begin for influence in the remnants of the Syrian state. For Israel, however, the time to act is limited and the uncertainty that follows will shape Jerusalem’s defense posture for quite some time.