Targeting Bashar

How serious are Israel’s repeated threats to assassinate the Syrian president? 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Israeli media have recently been filled with statements attributed to ministers, parliamentarians and hawks from the ruling Likud party openly threatening to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Asad if he allows Syrian territory to be used by Iran to retaliate for last month’s Israeli air raid on the T-4 airbase in Syria in which several Iranian military advisors were killed.

On Monday alone, four such threats were issued. They warrant scrutiny for clues as to what may happen in the region in the coming few days, and how serious these threats are and how likely it is they could actually be carried out.

      The first and most significant threat was voiced by Energy Minister Yuval Steintiz, a member of the security cabinet and leading Likud figure. He called bluntly for the Syrian government to be toppled, Asad to be killed and his regime to be terminated.

      The second came from army reserve general Yoav Galant, once tipped to become chief of staff, who opined that the time had come for Israel to assassinate Asad so as to concentrate on the snake’s head, i.e. Iran.

      The third came in an article penned by prominent settler leader Yisrael Harel in the daily Haaretz. He declared it imperative that Asad should meet the same fate as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and as quickly as possible.

      The fourth threat was made by the far-right former Knesset member ‘professor’ Aryeh Erdad in Maarivnewspaper, in which he affirmed that the only way to end the war in Syria is to assassinate Asad.

These repeated calls for Israeli action to kill the Syrian president, unprecedented in their frequency, reflect the sense of apprehension among Israelis about the prospect of a devastating response by Iran to the killing of its personnel. Most Israeli analysts seem to believe that retaliatory action is inevitable, with only the timing, scale and targets of the action open to debate, as well as the nature of the Israeli counter-response.

The Iranians are keeping quiet, leaving the jumpy Israelis to do the talking and speculating. Israeli security sources claimed at the weekend that Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Brigade, has been tasked with overseeing Iran’s retaliation, and that he has formed a ‘cell’ consisting of Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah and Shia militia members to carry it out and fire a barrage of missiles from Syria at targets deep within Israeli-held territory.

Now that the Lebanese parliamentary elections are over, resulting in a big victory for Hezbollah and its allies, Hezbollah is ready to play its part in the response. This could come very soon, perhaps before next week’s Iraqi parliamentary elections in order to give an electoral boost to pro-Iranian candidates and parties – notably Popular Mobilization chief Hadi al-Ameri, the strongest challenger to incumbent prime minister Haidar al-Abadi and often described as ‘Iran’s candidate’.

 It is highly doubtful that the Israeli leadership would dare assassinate Asad. For one thing, that would be crossing a red line with regard to Moscow and President Vladimir Putin. It would also unleash the fires of hell: the response would come in the form of tens of thousands of missile strikes, perhaps accompanied by incursions into the Galilee and Golan Heights, and wreak devastation on Israeli cities and infrastructure.

Moreover, if someone wants to carry out an assassination, it hardly makes sense for them to publicly threaten the target beforehand rather than act immediately. Israeli leaders know full well that such threats will not intimidate Asad nor prompt him to prohibit an Iranian retaliatory strike  

It is the height of insolence to kill Syrian and Iranian personnel in Syria and then threaten to assassinate Asad if he allows the Iranians to retaliate from Syrian territory. That was where the crime was committed and it is natural for the response to come from there. An aggressor does not have the right to dictate how or from where the victim of aggression may respond.

But the era of Israeli arrogance is drawing to a close, because there are people around who are not frightened by threats and are prepared to take up arms to defend themselves and retaliate for aggression. That is why Israel’s leaders and settlers are in such a state of panic.

The retaliation is coming. It would be justified, and could be imminent, and it may overturn many of the old assumptions that prevailed in the region.