Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak all but acknowledged that Israel carried out the strike near Damascus on Jan. 30, saying it was “proof that when we say something we mean it.” An Israeli cabinet minister had warned before the attack that Israel could act against transfers of chemical weapons to militant groups.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence who directs the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said in an interview that while future Israeli action could be expected, it would depend on specific calculations of the advantages and risks of such strikes.
Four types of weapons
Israel, he said, has defined four types of weapons whose transfer to militant groups would not be tolerated: advanced air defense systems, ballistic missiles, sophisticated shore-to-sea missiles and chemical weapons.
In accordance with this policy, Yadlin said, “any time Israel will have reliable intelligence that this is going to be transferred from Syria to Lebanon, it will act,” although specific decisions to strike would be subject to assessments of the military value of the attack, the risk of escalation and the positions of foreign powers.
“As the Syrian army becomes weaker and Hezbollah grows more isolated because of the loss of its Syrian patron, it makes sense that this will continue,” Yadlin said, adding that Israeli responses would be weighed each time and “not happen automatically.”
The real dilemma facing Israeli officials, Yadlin said, is not whether to attack, but whether inaction would mean a greater threat later. “The correct comparison is the risk of escalation now and the risk of having a much more formidable enemy and many casualties in future hostilities,” he said.
Analysts in Lebanon also predicted more Israeli strikes if advanced weapons transfers were attempted.
“Israel is trying to create a sense of deterrence,” said Elias Hanna, a retired general and a professor at the American University of Beirut. “The other side tries to test and erode the system.”
According to Israeli assessments, Hezbollah has amassed about 60,000 rockets and missiles since a 2006 war with Israel. Israeli officials say these include some Scud-D ballistic missiles, with a range of more than 400 miles, supplied by Syria in recent years. Along with other shorter-range missiles from Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s arsenal can reach anywhere in Israel, the officials say.
The transfer to Hezbollah of advanced antiaircraft systems, such as the SA-17 ground-to-air missiles said to have been the target of the Jan. 30 strike, would not only threaten Israel’s reconnaissance flights over Lebanon but also Israeli airspace, according to an Israeli official monitoring the buildup of such weapons.