Any thought that Syria would remain silent about Israel’s attack on a weapons convoy making its way through Syrian territory toward Lebanon was dashed today as not just Syria, but Iran, Russia and Hezbollah all condemned the strike in quite harsh terms:
The Iranian deputy foreign minister warned Thursday that Israel’s strike would lead to “grave consequences for Tel Aviv,” while the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the strike “blatantly violates the United Nations Charter and is unacceptable and unjustified, whatever its motives.”
It’s one thing to attack a country in the midst of a civil war with little ability to defend its borders, but quite another to rile two other nations which present quite a different military posture: Russia and Iran.
Iran warned Israel both the day before the Syria attack and today that such an eventuality would bring a sure Iranian response. This put Israel on notice that it could no longer wield its power in the region without thought of consequences. From here on, there are consequences and they should be calculated in advance. Israeli intelligence and military officers are used to having complete freedom of action in their theater of operations. But the rules of the game are rapidly changing both with the results of the Arab Spring and the continuing deterioration of Israel’s status both in the region and internationally.
Russia has a very complicated relationship with Israel. On the one hand, it’s an ally of some of Israel’s most implacable adversaries like Iran and Syria; but on the other hand it has an exceedingly close relationship with Avigdor Lieberman and has been rumored to collaborate with Israel clandestinely in various ventures. Indeed, national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror visited Russia the day before the attack. I’m not sure whether he was reaming Putin a new asshole for allowing these weapons to be transferred to Hezbollah; or whether he took an entirely different approach. The question is whether whatever commonalities the two countries share could be torn asunder by Israel changing the rules of the game through this violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Of course, Israel will argue the anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of Hezbollah would’ve changed the rules of the game for Israel and rendered its air power vulnerable to attack by Hezbollah from sophisticated Russian weaponry. But again what Israel is failing to recognize is that it will be increasingly hemmed in by such limitations. Enemies who are relatively weak and powerless don’t stay that way forever. Just because you’ve enjoyed command of air, sea and land for decades doesn’t mean it will remain so. Things change. Balances of power change. The day of unquestioned Israeli supremacy is rapidly drawing to a close. The question will be whether Israel can make its peace with this development of whether, like Samson, it will shake the pillars of the temple that is the Middle East and bring them down taking itself and all its enemies with it. Any country with 200 nuclear weapons has the power to do this.
Miraculously, in an entire NY Times article on this subject, Jodi Rudoren couldn’t seem to find a single Israel analyst who exercised any sense of caution or warning of the repercussions from Israel’s attack. Those she did interview were only concerned with weighing a cost-benefit analysis that justified Israel’s action in the name of keeping weapons out of the hands of its sworn enemy, Hezbollah. Rudoren couldn’t identify anyone who weighed the costs of Israel’s escalating a civil war involving a single country into a regional showdown among Syria and its allies Iran and Russia.
Though we know the convoy attacked was carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, we don’t know where these munitions originated. Given Iran’s strident denunciation of the attack, I believe it’s entirely possible the path the weapons took was not from Russia to Syria, but from Russia to Iran to Syria. The involvement of Iran in this incident ratchets up the combustibility factor by a factor of ten at least. Israel and Iran already have enough fuel between them to ignite a regional war. Do they need more?
One wonders why the Obama administration didn’t think this through more clearly when IDF intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi visited Washington just before the attack, presumably seeking a green light. I strongly doubt Israel would have attacked unless Kochavi was told the administration had no objections. Did we not consider that Bashar al-Assad would exploit this attack for his own political benefit? What better opportunity could we offer him than to present himself to his own people and the rest of the Arab world as a victim bullied in his own house by the Israeli Goliath. Did we need to do this?
In a possibly related matter, an Israeli source confirms that the Israeli navy intercepted a vessel in the Red Sea carrying weapons. Four Arab crewman aboard the boat were arrested. The IDF slapped a gag order on the incident and it cannot be reported in Israel.
The far-right news portal, WND, reported that the ship was flying under a Qatari flag and that it was bound for Lebanon carrying anti-aircraft missiles. If this is true (and given WND’s track record, that’s a BIG if) the weapons aboard were not destined for Hezbollah, since it has its own weapons supplier and Sunni Qatar isn’t known to support Shiia Hezbollah. More likely the weapons were headed (again, if this story is true) from Qatar to the Syrian rebels. This raises the question (which I can’t answer): why would Israel intercept a shipment of arms bound for Syria? It seems doubtful Israel would try to aid Bashar al-Assad in any way since he’s clearly on his way out.
Walla reported this story (Hebrew) before it was taken down by the censor, saying the weapons were destined for Hezbollah. If this is the case, then perhaps the Lebanese militia is seeking new arms suppliers in case its Syrian benefactor, Bashar Assad, falls. But again, I find this theory unlikely since Qatar is known as a major arms supplier for the Sunni Syrian rebels, but has no known affiliation with Hezbollah.
If we concede WND may’ve gotten the story partially right and partially wrong (again a very real possibility), Israel may’ve stopped the ship because it suspected the weapons were from Iran and intended for Hamas. Israel has intercepted such vessels in the past and I’ve reported on this here. It also might’ve intercepted the Qatari vessel suspecting that the Emir of Qatar, who just pledged $450-million in support of rebuilding Gaza’s infrastructure, might be branching out into supplying Hamas with weapons as well. Of all the possibilities outlined above, this and the Syrian rebel scenario are the most likely.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.