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Analysis: Of Red Lines and Shadow Wars

07/05/2013 13:06 BST | Updated 06/07/2013 10:12 BST
AP

Shortly after Israel carried out its biggest attack on Syria since the Yom Kippur War, a former high-ranking IDF official spoke to the media. "Iran is testing Israel and the US's determination to uphold 'red lines'", said Amos Yadlin, whose views can be taken as representative of many senior IDF officers. "And what it is seeing in Syria is that at least some of the actors take red lines seriously".

This last pointed remark was aimed squarely at Barack Obama, whose aides have been busy leaking to The New York Times that the president didn't really mean it when he said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line". "The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action," one senior official told the paper.

In other words, it was a bluff - and the bluff was called. The Assad regime has followed a boiling frog strategy in its war against the rebels, carefully escalating in slight increments to test whether the international community will react. Now the regime is toying with the possibility that chemical weapons may still yet ensure its survival, and their initial experiments have not prompted any kind of response.

For Israeli officials who are being asked to base many of their future security calculations on the promise that President Obama will do whatever it takes to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, this makes uncomfortable reading. If a "red line" in Syria turns out to be illusory, who is to say the one in Iran is any more concrete? This is the core anxiety behind Israel's latest attack in Damascus.

The target of the attack is telling. The targets were a shipment of long-range missiles being sent from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria, but it was no coincidence that they happened to be in high-profile Syrian military facilities at the time they were struck. Israel has its red lines too, and these include the shipment of chemical weapons and advanced missile systems to Hezbollah. With President Obama's red line apparently a bluff, the Israeli security establishment made loud and clear to Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in one fell swoop that its are still as clear as ever.

Syria likely has little choice in continuing to acquiesce in the shipments of weapons to Hezbollah via its territory. The last thing the Assad regime needs now is a war with Israel, but it is now far too weak to call the shots itself: being a transhipment point for missiles designed to rain down on Israeli civilians is the price it pays for the continuing support of Iran and Hezbollah in its battle against the rebels.

Indeed, the Assad regime's reliance on foreign forces for its survival has become all the more blatant in recent months. There is strong evidence that Hezbollah forces have directly engaged Syrian rebels in combat. Meanwhile, the extent of Tehran's influence over Assad was demonstrated earlier this year when the regime released over 2,000 prisoners in exchange for the return of a mere 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured by the rebels. Given the extent of Assad's reliance on them for survival, if Iran wants the shipments to continue then continue they shall.

Hence the real target of the attack in Damascus was Iran, not Syria. It is the latest and most public act in the "shadow war" raging between Iran and Israel, with Syria merely the stage. As is so often the case in civil wars, the collapse of the government's authority invites the intervention of outside powers. Barack Obama has been hesitant to add the U.S. to the long list of nations seeking to have a decisive influence over Syria's future, but the Israeli strike only adds to the pressure for him to do so.

As Senator John McCain has pointed out, the ease with which Israel penetrates Syrian air space to destroy key targets makes a mockery of the argument that the country's air defences are a deterrent to American intervention. There are other, very good reasons why Obama has been hesitant to take the plunge. But as the shadow war between Israel and Iran breaks out into the open and the threat of a regional war grows greater, the pressure on Obama to intervene will only increase.

But even with American intervention, the basic problem would remain: with Assad's regime gone and the rebels fragmented and likely unable to agree on the shape of a post-Assad future, the country would plunge further into chaos and remain a plaything of outside forces. The only difference would be that now U.S. credibility would be on the line in determining the outcome. One would have to be very clear about where one's red lines lay before taking on such a responsibility.