Israel’s Syrian Media Games

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Israeli security forces arrest a Palestinian protestor as clashes broke out outside Damascus gate in Jerusalem on 15 May 2013 during a rally to mark the 65th Nakba or "catastrophe" of the Jewish state's creation in 1948. (Photo: AFP - Jack Guez)

By: Ali Haydar

Published Friday, May 17, 2013

In an unusual step, an Israeli official recently contacted The New York Times to issue threats that Israel is prepared to bring down the Syrian regime if Damascus retaliates against Tel Aviv’s earlier military strikes.

“Israel is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah,” declared a senior Israeli official, who contacted The New York Times on Wednesday, May 15. The official continued: “If Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”

The newspaper further quoted the Israeli official as saying, “Israel has so far refrained from intervening in Syria’s civil war and will maintain this policy as long as Assad refrains from attacking Israel directly or indirectly.”

Mark Landler, the author ot the piece, wrote that the motives behind issuing such threats were “uncertain,” noting that “Israel could be seeking to restrain Syria’s behavior to avoid taking further military action, or alerting other countries to another military strike.” He also suggested that there may be a secondary audience to the message, i.e. Iran and Hezbollah.

The official’s statement prompted much speculation in the Israeli media about its motives and timing. Some linked it with the landing of two mortar shells on Mount Hermon in the occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, while others believed that it came as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent trip to Moscow, which Israeli sources described as a failure.

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, told The New York Times that Russia could be one of the targeted recipients of the Israeli message, particularly given that two of the weapons that Tel Aviv has named as game changers in its confrontation with Hezbollah – the SA-17 anti-aircraft rockets and Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles – are Russian.

In a different take, Amir Bohbout, a military affairs analyst from the Hebrew website Walla!, speculates that the Israeli message did not come from the security establishment, but was rather issued from political circles who intended it to be a reassuring signal to Israelis, particularly those living in the north, who felt that the military was unsure of how to respond to the mortar attacks on Mount Hermon.

Bahbout suggests that Assad was inclined to retaliate after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cold reception of Netanyahu in Moscow earlier in the week, taking advantage of the opportunity to send a clear signal to Tel Aviv that Damascus does not intend to remain quiet about such aggression.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv, for its part, put the official’s threats in the context of conflicting views emerging in political and security circles over the Syrian crisis, with one side pushing to topple Assad – which they view as a devastating blow to Israel’s most dangerous foe, Iran – and an opposing current, which is increasingly concerned about the kind of alternatives that would emerge to replace the regime in Damascus.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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