As would be expected, the news in Israel was dominated by the stories of the alleged Israeli attack on Damascus last night. This attack, allegedly the second in three days, seems to have been targeting long range missiles en route to be transferred to Hezbollah.There are many unknowns in the events of the last few days (e.g. Were these new missiles that Iran had just delivered? Alternatively, were these missiles Hezbollah was storing in Syria?, or Is it possible these were Syrian missiles that Hezbollah demanded from Assad in return for their increasing support of his regime? Those who know the answers are being completely quiet on the matter... while everyone else speculates.
There are many other areas ripe for speculation. First and foremost, Who is sending signals to whom? President Obama has made it clear that the U.S. supports the Israeli action. It is not clear if Israel was acting as a sub-contractor for the Unite States, showing Assad how vulnerable he is, or if the Israelis were showing the Americans the extent to which Assad's air defense is a paper tiger.
The biggest question of all, is whether Assad will react. There are two reasons to think he might and two bigger reasons to believe he will not. First of all, this time the Syrian government had no choice but to admit to the attack. This recent attack was visible from all of Damascus and shook the city. If Assad does not react, he will demonstrate additional weakness– the one trait a dictator cannot show. The second reason Assad might react would be the traditional pretext– when things go bad domestically, turn on Israel (the common enemy), who everyone can unite to hate. The problem for Assad at the moment is twofold. In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, (the one in which the fight between Sunnis and Shiites has been shoved to the forefront) using the Israel card does not seem to work. None of the Sunni Arab states condemned the Israeli attack. Many private commentators praised it.
The second reason for Assad to hold back is that any sort of attack on Israel would be suicidal for his regime. Assad could hit Israel with ballistic missiles, many of which would be shot down by both Israel’s Hetz and Iron Dome– and he could cause significant damage. However, in an hour, his airforce would be decimated, as would any missiles he had not fired at the beginning of the war. And if Israel were to find it necessary, Israeli tanks could probably be in Damascus in a matter of hours. So the likelihood of anything other than a symbolic response is extremely limited. Nevertheless, as Israeli commentators mentioned continuously today, this is still the Middle East. So Israel has taken all the necessary defensive steps, including deploying two Iron Dome systems in the North, and closing the northern air space to civilian traffic. Prime Minister Netanyahu however, left this eveing for China, thus endorsing the view that Syria will not take action.
Meanwhile, some of the images coming out of Syria of civilian massacres over the weekend (particularly in the town of Banias) are truly horrific. Sadly, to date, the world is "stoically" ignoring them.