Israeli jets struck something Tuesday night; Wednesday's guessing game has been, "what was it?"
First reports from Western news services said the Israeli Air Force hit a convoy of weapons moving west from Syria toward, or even in Lebanon. A Lebanese army source said nothing was hit there and a sometimes-but-not-always-reliable source said it wasn't a convoy at all, but an arms depot near the Jamaraya institute, which some people think works on non-conventional weapons. A Syrian military statement said Israel had hit Jamaraya. U.S. officials said it was a convoy. At least one Western report said there was uranium involved.
In any event, Israel quickly dispatched high-level government and military officials to Russia and the United States to provide additional information and, perhaps, to alert those governments to additional threats.
The next questions should be, "who is pulling Israel into the quagmire that Syria and Lebanon have become, and why?"
It is unlikely that Bashar Assad is interested in acquiring another military adversary at the moment. The myriad rebel factions plus Turkey are making life hard enough for the regime. So the instigator might well have been Iran -- the only other party with the authority to undertake such a move. Why? One possibility is that Iran wants Hezbollah to tie down the Israelis and prevent a Western intervention to help the rebels. Another is that Iran really believes Assad won't survive and wants to move his assets to a "safer location," Lebanon.
If either is the Iranian strategy, it is a huge blunder. Israel has been known to cross borders when a security situation becomes untenable – Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 for example. If this security situation rises to that level, the next movement that the IDF finds intolerable would likely produce a similar or stronger response. The Iranians must be worried.
Iran and its client, Hezbollah, have both been supporting Assad's military and its assorted thug groups -- Hezbollah by lending Assad fighters, and Iran by supplying weapons, troops and officers. Atrocities inside Syria continue to mount, including the discovery of more than 100 bodies -- mostly executed with a bullet to the head -- in a canal in Aleppo this week. The rebels and the government exchanged accusations, but no one appears sure who did it. The final outcome of the war is far from certain.
Meanwhile Syria's periphery continues to roil, with reports that Turkey is fighting the Kurds through proxies, sending tanks and other equipment across the border and encouraging Syrian jihadist rebels to fight Kurds as well as the regime. Since the United States has been backing Turkey strongly, it is seen to be aligned with Turkey's attacks on the Kurds.
The risk in Syria is that in the increasing chaos and shifting alliances, the government will either use chemical weapons against its enemies; or lose control of the stockpiles. In some areas, rebel forces are reported to be a stone's throw away from taking control of some of these weapons. By threatening action if the rebels succeed, Israel appears to have announced its preference for Assad's control, rather than control by Hezbollah or the rebels.
If Israel believed the convoy was carrying poison gas (and perhaps missiles) to Hezbollah, or that the chemicals at the Jamaraya Institute were about to be moved or acquired by the rebels, it would consider those moves to be highly provocative. If, in fact, Israel's "red lines" have been crossed, we may be seeing the start of a rapidly developing "Ho Chi Minh trail" problem -- the complex corridor by which North Vietnam supplied its forces operating against South Vietnam and the United States. The U.S. spent years, thousands of man-hours, and millions of bombs trying stop the supply. When it finally became clear that no amount of bombing, defoliation, and counter-attacks could do it, the U.S. began bombing the source of supply: North Vietnam.
The same is true for Syria -- but Israel does not have years to spend on the problem. The location of Syria's chemical weapons depots, manufacturing facilities, missile bases and supply depots is well known. It is not unreasonable to assume that Israel can take them all out, and liquidate the Syrian Air Force as well. If the Iranian strategy is to move its assets to Lebanon and the control of Hezbollah, it is inviting Israel to eliminate Syria's war-fighting capability and hasten the demise of both Assad and Hezbollah.
It appears that Israel responded to a rapidly evolving threat in a measured way. But will Iran stop?
Stephen Bryen is President of SDB Partners, LLC. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.