Israel bombed Syria and the Assad regime is threatening retaliation. The international community warns of further escalation - yet how great is the danger of a Syrian-Israeli war?
A day after the most recent Israeli airstrikes on Syria the Israeli prime minister demonstratively flew to China. The trip was arranged long ago. Netanjahu saw no need to abandon the plan. The message is clear: it's business as usual – Israel does not believe Syria will retaliate or the situation will escalate further.
But the photographs from the weekend were anything but harmless. Massive explosions, a huge sea of flames, buildings razed. Within 48 hours, the Israeli airforce struck several targets in Syria.
Israel is ready to use force when it comes to preventing Hezbollah from getting their hands on Syrian rockets
Officially, the Israeli government did not confirm the attacks. A senior Israeli official told the AFP news agency the attack targeted weapons and missiles headed to the hands of the anti-Israeli Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. It is believed the missiles would have had a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles) - with such missiles, Hezbollah would be able to reach Tel Aviv. Information provided by an informant to the New York Times indicates though that Israel's most important target was a Syrian chemical weapons factory.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tallies the deaths of more than 40 Syrian soldiers during the weekend attacks. Dozens are still missing. Those killed were members of the Republican Guard, soldiers responsible for the safety of President Bashar Assad.
Threats from Syria
The Syrian government warned Israel that the bombings "meant the door was now wide open." The Syrian cabinet said the country had the right and the duty to protect the land and her people "through any means" against attacks.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon called on all sides "to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict." China urged both parties to maintain peace and stability in the region and avoid any action that may intensify the situation. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said "the further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilization of the so-far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border." The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also warned of further conflict.
Security measures in Israel
The Israeli military meanwhile moved its anti-aircraft missiles to the north of the country. The city of Haifa lies just a few kilometers from the border with Lebanon and has been the target of Hezbollah rockets in the past.
Yet Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to Germany, does not expect the situation to escalate further. "No one is interested in this. The Syrian regime has enough on its plate with the rebels. Assad cannot afford another war…" Hezbollah also don't want things to heat up, because they fear Israeli retaliation. "And Israel doesn't want it either."
Volker Perthes, Middle East expert at the German Institute for International Policy, has a similar view: "The Israelis have good reason to assume there will be no direct retaliation from Syria." Hezbollah can also not afford to start a new war with Israel at the moment. "They must maintain their legitimacy at home. They couldn't achieve that with a war." A limited response from Hezbollah could not be ruled out though, he cautions.
Backing for a military strike
Avi Primor supports the Israeli army's attack on Syria. "It was essential" to prevent missiles, or even chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
The Assad regime has already accused the opposition of cooperating with Israel. That is why, the regime argues, the Syrian people should close ranks and band together in the battle against the opposition and Israel. Volker Perthes though does not believe this strategy of propaganda actually works. After all, the opposition might just as well use the Israeli attack to show the people that Assad cannot protect his country.
No interference in the civil war?
On Monday, the Israeli government tried to downplay the attack. Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israeli radio that the air strikes were "only against Hezbollah, and not directed at the Syrian regime."
In fact, Israel has an ambivalent position on the civil war in the neighboring country. "Israel," says Volker Perthes, "has actually had relatively good experiences with Assad." A truce has existed between the two countries since 1974. The shared border region has been quiet for some years. "Assad was a reliable, predictable enemy." For many years Assad has supported the Lebanese Hezbollah. Within the region, Syria is Iran's most important ally - should Assad fall, Iran's influence in the region would decline. "On the other hand," warns Primor, "we don't know whether we would then get an al-Qaeda regime in Syria instead."
Both alternatives - with or without Assad - have pros and cons for Israel. In that sense, there's little incentive for Israel to get involved in the conflict. But the attacks show that Tel Aviv does not hesitate to defend its interests in the region, using military means if necessary.