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What next after Israel's attack on Syria?

On Wednesday, an Israeli air strike hit a target on the Syrian-Lebanese border. It is still unclear exactly what the target was. Syrian state television claims that warplanes were aiming for a "scientific research centre" near Damascus, while other reports suggest that they hit a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weapons across the border to Lebanon. The latter report seems more likely, since Israeli leaders said last week that any transfer of Syria's extensive supply of weapons was a "red line" that would prompt action. If Hezbollah were to upgrade its arsenal by siphoning off some of Syria's conventional and chemical weapons, it would change the stakes in any future engagement with the well-stocked Israeli army. Speaking unofficially, western officials have indicated that this was a one off attack aimed at a weapons convoy – which could have been transferred either to bolster Hezbollah's capability, as feared, or simply to keep them out of the hands of the rebels.

However, all of this will remain academic, because Israel has refused to comment, neither confirming nor denying the allegation that it was responsible for the attack. This is a behaviour pattern that Israel has followed before when accused of military intervention, a policy apparently aimed at minimising the chances of all-out war. Israel has never acknowledged a 2007 strike on a Syrian nuclear facility.

If the posturing of Syria, Iran, and the Arab League is anything to go by, retaliatory action is precisely what Israel could be facing. Syria delivered a letter to the United Nations stating its right to self-defence. The country's ambassador to Lebanon said that Syria has "the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation". The deputy foreign minister of Iran warned that the strike could have "grave consequences for Tel-Aviv", while the Arab League said it was a "glaring violation" of Syria's sovereignty. Russia, too, weighed in, saying that if the attack is confirmed to be Israel's doing, it "blatantly violates the United Nations Charter and is unacceptable and unjustified, whatever its motives."

So what comes next? Action has explicitly been threatened by Syria. Some analysts have suggested that Syria would not have accused Israel by name and gone to the UN if it did not intend to do something in retaliation. However, the fact is that Syria's military is already somewhat overstretched by the 22 month long uprising in the country. The extra pressure that would be incurred by attacking Israel and defending against the ensuing onslaught could well lose the Syrian civil war and tip the balance in the favour of the rebels. Hezbollah is also in a weak position within Lebanon, and keen to retain domestic calm.

Above all else, the incident demonstrates anxiety in the region about the slow collapse of the Syrian state. As the war rolls on and diplomatic efforts remain deadlocked, neighbouring countries across the board are increasingly worried about contagion. There have been problems on the Turkish border, a big flow of refugees into Jordan, and destabilisation in Lebanon. No other states, however, have embarked on aggressive action within Syria's borders.

Israel has taken a gamble on the fact that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will not retaliate, and that the strike will be taken as a warning of the consequences of transferring weapons. But the issue of arms flowing out of Syria is unlikely to go away. If Israel follows up at a later date with more strikes, it might not get off with condemnations alone.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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