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Israel's sights set on Hezbollah – not Assad

Israeli analysts expect more air strikes on Syria to stop what the country calls "game-changing" Iranian-supplied weapons from being transferred by Syria to Hezbollah. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports


News Analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel –  Syrian rebels have cheered Israel’s strikes against Syrian government facilities, while the Syrian government has said the attacks prove Israel is backing the rebels.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Israel is not engaging in the Syrian civil war. Instead, it is striking early blows in Israel’s possible next war: against Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

“This attack had nothing to do with the Syrian civil war. The big story is Iran and Hezbollah, not Syria,” Professor Eyal Zisser, a Syrian expert at Tel Aviv University, told NBC News Monday.

“Israel’s message is that we want to change the rules of the game. For the last 20 years Iran provided all kinds of weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. Now this is the end of the story. Israel will no longer accept the rearming of Hezbollah,” Zisser added.

Analysts here say there are four weapons systems on Israel’s blacklist, whose transfer through Syria would trigger air attacks: guided ground to ground rockets like the Iranian Fateh 110’s reportedly destroyed in this weekend’s attack; chemical weapons; land to sea missiles like Russian Yakhont missiles that can hit a ship 200 miles at sea at speeds of up to Mach 2; and anti-aircraft rockets like the SAM 17s that would endanger Israel’s control of the skies.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talk about the possibility that the two year civil war between the two country may broaden into a wider regional conflict. NBC's Richard Engel joins the conversation.

Israeli analysts have taken to calling these weapons “game-changers,” whose transfer must be stopped at any price. But others point out that fearsome as they are, Israel has answers to all of them and is in no real danger of losing its superiority against a relatively small outfit like Hezbollah.

Where is Syria’s ‘red line’?
So the public debate in Israel, which the military has kept out of, revolves around this question: Where is Syria’s so –called “red line”? At what point will Israel’s attacks against targets inside Syria provoke the Syrian leadership into retaliating against Israel? Is Israel walking a tightrope that will lead inevitably to a sudden clash with Syria?

Israel takes comfort in its intelligence assessment that President Bashar al-Assad would rather absorb the blows and the humiliation than confront Israel. The assumption is that Assad knows any confrontation would lead to a brutal Israeli attack, probably against his air force and air fields, and that would lead to his defeat at the hands of the Syrian rebels.

But Israel is also in a quandary about its best interests: What is better for Israel: Syria under the Iranian-backed leadership of Assad? Syria under a rebel-Sunni-Islamist coalition? Or, most likely, the breakup of Syria into ethnic and religious cantons?

With no clear answer, Israel is electing to stay well out of it.

Its actions against Hezbollah on Syrian soil could backfire if Syria chooses to retaliate. So far, there is no real sign of that – although reports from Syria this weekend suggest that Syrian missiles are now trained on Israel.

But while maintaining a heightened state of alert, and positioning two Iron Dome anti-missile systems in the northern towns of Haifa and Safed, Israel is also downplaying any threat, its citizens are paying little attention, and an order to civilian aircraft to stay out of the northern skies is expected to be lifted today.

Related links

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Israel to Syria's Assad: Airstrikes not aimed at helping rebels

Analysis: Israel may be ready for more active military role in Syria