Assad’s inability to respond to the airstrikes — which, if Israel’s role is confirmed, would be the second and third Israeli attacks on Syrian targets this year — is a personal humiliation for the Syrian leader, even as it offers a chance to sway the opinions of some Arabs in his favor, said David Schenker, a former senior adviser to the Pentagon on Middle East policy and military affairs.
“Syria almost welcomes Israel’s involvement because it muddies the water,” Schenker said. “But it’s also embarrassing, because the state can’t do anything about it.”
Restraints on Iran
Assad’s key Shiite allies, Hezbollah and Iran, have denounced the airstrikes. Iran demanded a formal response from the United Nations, criticizing the attacks in a letter as “blatant acts of aggression” and a “serious violation of international law.” But several current and former U.S. officials said Iran wants to avoid direct hostilities amid sensitive international negotiations over its nuclear program and upcoming domestic elections.
Iran would probably pressure Hezbollah to show restraint as well, preferring to reserve the group’s stockpile of Iranian-made missiles and rockets as an insurance policy against a future Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities, said Clifford Kupchan, a Middle East expert and former State Department official.
“Iran has been careful not to get itself bombed by the United States,” Kupchan said, “and it perceives Hezbollah as its key card in the event that Israel or the United States should ever attack its nuclear facilities.”
Despite its reported arsenal of about 60,000 missiles and rockets, Hezbollah has largely avoided military clashes with Israel since their last major conflict in southern Lebanon in 2006. Instead, it has engaged in covert attempts to kill Israeli and Western diplomats, businessmen and tourists over the past two years, in settings ranging from Bangkok to Istanbul to Washington.
This week, a judge in Kenya sentenced two Iranian nationals to life imprisonment for their role in a foiled scheme to blow up Kenyan hotels and businesses popular with Israeli and Western tourists.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad appeared to be alluding to such attacks when he vowed in a televised interview that Syria would respond to the latest airstrikes in a manner and time of its choosing. “We have dealt with this on several occasions, and we retaliated in the way we wanted,” Mekdad told CNN on Sunday. “The retaliation was always painful.”