Multiple messages in Israel's Syria strikes
By Victor Kotsev
A series of Israeli strikes in Syria over the last few days left more questions than answers, despite multiple leaks and speculations which accompanied them. The most urgent ones are whether or not they are just a prelude to a wider war in the Levant and what might bethe timeframe for such an outbreak of violence.
For now, it appears that a larger military confrontation is not imminent, despite reports that Syria pointed missiles at Israel (after announcing that the strikes comprised a "declaration of war") and the Jewish space positioned interceptors and closed the
air space in its north to civilian traffic. Reinforcing this message, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proceeded to China on Sunday evening, after several hours of consultations with officials.
However, despite all speculation, little has been confirmed about the raids, which apparently took place on Friday and Sunday morning. In fact, the first round was kept secret by all those involved for about a day, when it was leaked to journalists by American officials.
It is believed that the attacks struck stores of ground-to-ground missiles which the anonymous American and Israeli officials quoted by world media claimed were about to be transferred to the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah. There is some disagreement, however, whether these missiles were Iranian-made Fateh-110, Syrian-produced Scud-Ds, or both. Other weapons, such as advanced Russian anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, have also been mentioned as possible targets of the raid, and a similar strike in January is believed to have targeted Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft batteries.
Moreover, Israel is alleged to have tested a new air-to-ground missile, the Spice-2000,  and to have conducted the raids from "stand-off" distance over Lebanese air space. Analysts claim that this served both to protect the Israeli warplanes from the Syrian anti-aircraft defenses and to send a message to Iran about the Israeli capabilities.
Among the most important unanswered questions is that of the relationship between the US and Israel in this operation. One school of thought maintains that the strikes were an American message delivered by Israeli warplanes to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebels. It is impossible to strike the chemical weapons themselves without releasing large amounts of toxins into the environment, the argument goes, and this is why the Israelis took out a considerable chunk of the Syrian regime's missiles-the main delivery vehicle for the poison gases.
Besides, it is possible that, as the veteran Israeli analyst Zvi Bar'el claimed in the daily Ha'aretz, "Russia and the US have an undeclared agreement about the red lines for intervening in Syria: As long as America doesn't arm the Syrian rebels, Russia won't flaunt its military support for the regime."  Russia's slow public response to the strikes suggests that if US President Barack Obama used the Israeli air force to slap Assad on the wrist in order to avoid a major confrontation, it worked.
In any event, for complex reasons including worldwide consensus that Israel, as opposed to the US, has absolutely no "responsibility to protect" the Syrian rebels, this was a case where an Israeli strike would make much fewer ripples in the Middle East than an American one, and this may have suited Obama's agenda. According to a recent report in the New York Times, Obama's "red line" speech last year was an unscripted blunder,  and it is therefore conceivable that he would seek to repair the damage, and deter Assad from crossing any more red lines, as quietly as possible.
There are many indications that the attack was carefully planned a long time in advance, and some that the US actively participated in the planning. According to a Reuters report published last month, the American-brokered Israeli apology to Turkey in March was geared precisely toward such a strike, since Israelis and Turks had played aerial brinkmanship over Syria and Lebanon on recent occasions in the past. 
Also the timing of a "surprise" Israeli drill in the north, which started days before the attacks, suggests that the raids had been carefully scripted, as does recent open talk by Hezbollah about a war in the next six weeks. Given the long rostrum of American and Israeli officials which visited each other's capitals lately, and the support voiced by the White House for Israel's right "to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people", it is hard to believe that Obama was surprised by the operation.
On the other hand, however, some analysts believe that the Israeli strikes will put pressure on the White House to get involved in Syria as well, against Obama's wishes. This is also, essentially, what US Senator John McCain told Fox News on Sunday.
Foreign Policy Magazine's managing editor, Blake Hounshell, put it eloquently in an analysis published Saturday:
Advocates of intervention will ask: If Syrian air defenses are so tough, as US officials have been saying, why was Israel able to breach them so easily? Of course, a no-fly zone is a much more difficult and risky endeavor than a one-off raid, but you can expect that important distinction to get blurred. 
It is counter-intuitive that Israel would want to draw the US into Syria, if only because this would distract American attention from Iran - and, as the influential intelligence firm Stratfor argued earlier this year, may even serve Iranian interests to an extent.  But in the run-up to the Iranian presidential election next month, Israel's tough behavior against Tehran's most important Arab ally could influence internal Iranian politics and force the Iranian leaders to be even less accommodating in the forthcoming rounds of nuclear negotiations.
This would partly be motivated by geostrategic considerations, the argument goes: if the ayatollah regime loses Syria, it would feel an even stronger need for a nuclear deterrent to protect itself from being overthrown with foreign support.
If the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are expected to take place after the election, fail most analysts believe that the US will be forced to attack the Islamic Republic. While it is hard to claim that Israel sought to draw the US into a war with Iran through its repeated strikes on Syria, the possibility of this happening must surely have crossed the minds of Israeli policy makers who authorized the operation.
There are credible arguments, if only circumstantial evidence so far, for why the story told by Israelis and Americans about the imminent transfer of missiles to Hezbollah holds. Among these arguments are that Assad is indebted to Hezbollah for sending a large chunk of its forces to fight on his side and that he would like to protect the missiles from possible future American strikes. The prominent Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai provided some more relevant details in a recent analysis.  Worryingly, the logic of these arguments still holds, meaning that attempted transfers and limited air strikes are likely to continue in the future.
But overall, a lot more uncertainties than certainties exist with regard to these raids - not least, will they help or hurt the standing of the Syrian rebels - and heavy official secrecy makes it even more difficult to separate fact from fiction. While neither Assad nor Israel seems to have an interest in the outbreak of a larger war at this stage, surprises are possible, and it will likely take some time to assess the precise impact of what is happening.