The Syrian army in more than two years of fighting a civil war has proved to be highly professional, steadfast under pressure and above all disciplined. Not once in this brutal conflict were there instances of lone initiatives by a local unit or commander. Every move was directed by the presidential palace via the general staff in Damascus. Even when Syrian troops faced setbacks, they retreated in orderly fashion. For some months, nothing more has been heard of mass desertions, whose scale turned out to be highly inflated by the opposition.
Therefore, the proposition, which unnamed Israeli defense quarters fed military correspondents Wednesday, May 22, that more time was needed to tell whether Monday’s Syrian shooting attack on the Golan was ordered by Assad or a local initiative was not just way off track but harmful: It conveyed the impression of dithering among Israel’s decision-makers in the face of the Syrian ruler’s firm resolve, backed by Iran and Hizballah, to turn the divided Golan into the next “resistance front” against Israel.
Ignored was the Syrian government’s first direct claim of responsibility for the latest Golan attack. In fact, Assad has made his intentions plain more than once in the two weeks since Israel’s air strike over Damascus – and so has Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Tehran’s proxy.
Their plan is to begin with a trickle of small-scale military strikes against Israeli military and civilian targets starting from the Golan – and expanding to other fronts, the Lebanese-Israeli border, in particular. Hizballah, whose troops are deeply committed to the Syrian conflict, will at the same time extend its military effort to the war of “resistance” against Israel.
In case their message was missed, on Monday, May 20, Assad and Nasrallah told their henchman Ibrahim al-Amin, senior editor of the Hizballah publication Al Akhbar, to write the following: “The rope is taut to the limit… If anyone at either end flexes a finger, the big confrontation will start… This is the situation on the enemy’s northern front. Now means today; it means this hour.”
And indeed, the next day, Syria flexed its military finger three times by firing three shots at an IDF military patrol jeep on the Golan – and then got in first to the UN Security Council Wednesday morning with an accusation that an Israeli military jeep had trespassed Syrian territory and was destroyed.
Israel’s defense minister and chief of staff firmly denied that any IDF vehicle had been destroyed. But when the attack occurred, they ordered the Israel position to fire back with a Tamuz rocket and destroy the Syrian position, only after the third round of Syrian fire.
Caution and a measured response are undoubtedly prudent in the face of the war of attrition Assad has declared. But hiding their heads in the sand is not – and this is exactly what members of the Israeli defense establishment have been doing in the last few hours.
By trying to toss off the Golan attack as a local initiative, for which it was unnecessary to rethink the approach to border security at the end of 29 years of unbroken ceasefire, those officials were also contradicting the grave warnings issued to Damascus Tuesday by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. Someone here was trying to backtrack on their firm statements.
Because of this mixed message, the Israeli government sounded as though it was stammering in the face of am unequivocal menace issuing from Damascus.
This uncertain, divided posture let the Palestinians fire rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip for a decade. Today, it emboldens Israel’s enemies, Syria and Hizballah, to launch an escalating campaign of aggression across its borders.
Some of Israel’s leading strategists have erred in the first place by refusing to accept Syrian President Assad’s durability in defiance of their predictions of his imminent fall. Most of all, they are still turning their eyes away from the unfolding reality that Assad, Nasrallah and Iran’s Khamenei are coming out of the Syrian civil war as victors, contrary to Israeli hopes that defeat would snap the bonds of their implacably hostile alliance.
The Syrian ruler, conscious that he is riding high in the ferocious campaign against is own people, feels he can safely move on to a war of attrition against Israel.
By holding back and wavering in their responses, the Israeli defense establishment, possibly under the guidance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is making Assad and Nasrallah the gift of the initiative, a major advantage in any conflict.