(January 27, 2019 / JNS)
The first time that Israel carried out an attack on Syrian soil was in late January 2013, when it targeted an Iranian weapons shipment earmarked for Hezbollah. A few days later, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak said of the attack: “We gave warnings and ultimately did something about it.” In other words, Israel was behind the attack.
With this direct and clear assumption of responsibility, Barak effectively lifted the thin veil of ambiguity intended to provide cover for Israel’s actions in Syria. Perhaps he wanted to send the Iranians and Syrians a strong message, but it’s also possible he wanted to lay the foundations for his legacy as defense minister—similar to recently retired Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who upon ending his tenure revealed that the IDF attacked thousands of targets in Syria under his command.
Since that admission, Israel has attacked hundreds more targets in Syria, most, if not all, of them weapons shipments from Tehran to Beirut. A few weapons warehouses and factories were also hit, some of them belonging to the Syrian army, which had housed and even manufactured sophisticated weaponry for Hezbollah.
Although Israel didn’t claim responsibility the vast majority of the time, maintaining ambiguity was mostly a game of “pretend.” The Syrians almost always reported an attack had occurred, even if belatedly while often omitting the true nature of the targets. Sometimes the Russians and even the Americans would beat them to the punch. The latter—not wanting any part of the Syrian war—wanted to nip in the bud any potential blame for these attacks and therefore rushed to drop the responsibility at Israel’s doorstep.
More than anything, a policy of silence helps keep the enemy in the dark about how exposed and vulnerable it is to Israeli operational and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Silence is also necessary because it allows Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani to save face—as any direct Israeli claims of responsibility would force them into a corner and compel them to retaliate. Either way, in actuality, there was never much ambiguity in the true sense of the word.
Ambiguity means the other side isn’t sure whether Israel was behind an action or attack against it on its soil. For example, the assassinations of Imad Mugniyeh and Mahmoud al-Mabhouh were attributed to Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas believed Israel was behind the killings, but without undeniable proof, they couldn’t accuse it and retaliate.
As far as Syria is concerned, perhaps this ambiguity is of some benefit to the Israeli public, but the people on the other side of the border certainly have no doubts about what is going on. Even without official claims of responsibility, our neighbors never thought these attacks were the work of anyone else. A long line of defense ministers and generals have a history of intimating, and sometimes stating outright, that Israel is responsible.
It is ridiculous, ergo, to argue that the recent claims of responsibility in Israel specifically prodded the Iranians to escalate their response against Israel. After all, in Tehran and Damascus alike, policy isn’t determined by headlines in Israel. The Iranians don’t care about Israeli public opinion or the “boastings” of its leaders; they are only focused on the reality on the ground.
And on the ground, Israel has indeed managed to delay and even block Tehran’s efforts to establish a military foothold in Syria. As this is a paramount Iranian strategic interest, Tehran is determined to change the rules of the game, especially now that the war in Syria is almost over and Israeli-Russian relations aren’t as warm as they used to be.
The time has come to dispense with ambiguity, which never really existed in the first place, and replace it with clear declarations that highlight Israel’s red lines vis-à-vis Tehran.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.