If Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to feel threatened by the United States and the rest of the international community, he may be pushed into a corner and decide to fire missiles at Israel, senior IDF officers from Northern Command warned this week.
According to a report released late last year by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Syria had an estimated 45 missile launchers and had probably assembled a few Scud D rockets with a range of nearly 700 kilometers – a major threat to Israel because they can be armed with chemical warheads. Last June, Israeli military sources confirmed that Syria had test-fired three Scud missiles, despite Damascus’s denials.
While Israel’s border with Syria has been quiet since 1973, the military’s working assumption is that Israel’s next war will be on the northern front against Syria and Lebanon.
Israel, the IDF officers said, did not foresee a war with Syria in the near future and had not noticed any changes in Syrian military deployment along the northern border. But Assad’s handling of diplomatic affairs has the IDF worried.
Syria has been facing numerous pressures in recent months, including the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri that implicated Syrian Intelligence, and the criticism voiced against the regime by former top Syrian officials.
“We are watching and following Syria very closely, since the missile possibility exists,” a senior officer told The Jerusalem Post. “Assad might decide to copy Saddam Hussein and attack Israel if the pressure on him escalates.” Saddam fired missiles at Israel during the Gulf War in 1991.
For now, the officer said, the IDF did not see a reason to change its military deployment along the Syrian border. “We haven’t changed anything,” the officer said. “But we are staying alert and using our intelligence services to stay on top of anything that might happen in Syria that could have an impact on Israel.”
While the Syrian border is quiet, Damascus has been behind attacks against Israel carried out by its proxy – Hizbullah – on Israeli military outposts in the North. According to intelligence assessments, the Hizbullah attack on an IDF position in the northern village of Ghajar in November was per Damascus’s request. The IDF has put its forces along the Lebanese border on heightened alert to offset any attempts by Hizbullah to stir up tensions.
In December, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz publicly declared, “Syrian attempts to divert attention away from the country may result in heightened Hizbullah activity in the North.”
“Assad is trying to relieve the pressure,” one officer said this week. “Hizbullah carries out the attack, steals the world’s attention, and the pressure is relieved.”
Analysts cast doubt on the possibility that Assad would launch a missile strike against Israel, saying that if he did, it would definitely serve a death blow to his regime.
“Getting into a shooting match with Israel would not help his situation,” said Dr. Mark Heller, a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center.
Yiftah Shapir, a former IDF Intelligence officer and a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center, backed up Heller and claimed that while Syria was armed with Scud missiles, they were not meant to be used in an attack on Israel but to serve as a deterrent to an Israeli attack and to balance the military powers in the region.
“No one can accurately predict what Assad has in his head and what he will do,” Shapir said. “Technically, he has the power to launch missiles if he wants to, but the possibility is slim.”
But if Assad were to make such a “mistake,” Shapir said, “he knows Israel’s capabilities, and if a Scud falls here, Israel will respond fiercely.”