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Analysis: Israel's airstrike likely to complicate Syria crisis

News analysis

There may have been confusion about the target of the attack, but there is no doubt who was behind a deadly airstrike in Syria early on Wednesday.

The Syrian government said Israeli fighter jets struck a research facility northwest of the capital Damascus, killing two people.

The Pentagon said Israeli war planes struck a convoy that was transporting weapons to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Israeli forces conducted an airstrike on a convoy on the Syrian-Lebanese border Wednesday. NBC's Richard Engel joins Brian Williams with his analysis.

Either way, the action and its consequences could widen and complicate the ongoing Syrian conflict on multiple fronts.

It also raises questions about Israel's vulnerabilities: What was so important of a target that compelled Israel to act? And what was Israel afraid would fall into the hands of Hezbollah?

In recent days, Iran's ambassador to Syria and a senior aide to Iran's supreme leader both reiterated that an attack on Syria would constitute an attack on Iran. The comment was originally intended to dissuade western countries, specifically NATO, from taking any kind of action against Syria by force like they did in Libya.

Officials in Tehran referred to Syria as part of the 'axis of resistance' to Israeli and Western aggression across the region. If Iran's words are to be taken seriously, the recent Israeli attack on Syria would be a triggering mechanism for an Iranian response.

Both Iran and Syria, according to the Associated Press, have said they will respond. How, and when, is unclear.

It is unlikely the embattled Syrian regime -- and by extension its beleaguered military -- could undertake a full-blown confrontation with Israel.

Instead, Syria may rely on its allies across the region, including Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Iran and Hamas in Gaza. However, those allies may calculate that there is not much to gain from acting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose Syrian branch is engaged in the revolt against the Assad regime. It is unlikely Hamas will undertake any attack on Israel for the sake of a regime with which it is increasingly at ideological odds.

Hamas has even closed its Damascus headquarters since the uprising there began, focusing instead on its own struggle with Israel. More importantly, any unilateral action by Hamas would anger Cairo's domestically embattled Islamist government which has worked to maintain a fragile calm between Israel and Hamas. 

Hezbollah is much more willing to defend the Syrian regime. Hezbollah has come to the tactical and moral defense of the Assad regime in the past two years.

Police detonate a rocket-propelled grenade that struck a house in Turkey believed to have come from across the border in Syria. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

However in the past, Hezbollah has also explicitly stated its weapons are for the defense of Lebanon only. It has repeatedly stated that Hezbollah does not fight for anything except the right to resist Israel's occupation of Arab lands. More importantly, there would be substantial backlash against Hezbollah within Lebanon if the entire state was dragged into a costly war with Israel.

The third possible actor in this drama is Iran. With all of the pressure it faces over its nuclear program in the international arena, Iran is unlikely to take any overt action to retaliate for the Israeli airstrike on its ally, Syria. However, to complicate matters, Iran my ramp up its support for the Assad regime by providing financial and military assistance.

Instead, Hezbollah and Iran may opt for covert operations across the globe. Recent attacks on Israeli interests in Bulgaria and India -- allegedly linked to Iran and its proxies -- have raised the stakes for direct action by Israel.

Many players in the region are dismayed by Israel’s airstrike. Even Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has previously supported the rebels, has condemned the airstrike.

The Syria regime has begun to exploit this by painting Israel’s airstrike as evidence of an alliance between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to protect Western hegemony across the region. The fact that those countries are providing money -- and, reportedly, weapons -- to rebels in Syria at the same time as Assad’s regime is being attacked by Israel is only reinforcing a perception there that Syria is the target of an international conspiracy.

That may slow down the public appetite for Assad's overthrow. It may also prove to be costliest consequence of Israel's attack. 

Related:

Israeli attack in Syria could trigger Iran reaction

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Full coverage of Syria on nbcnews.com