Wars and rumors of wars… OK, let’s sort this out, at least until the next update. (This is how intelligence works, incidentally. You work with what you’ve got until the next update.)
The IAF attack on Friday (apparently, early on Friday morning) was targeting an arms shipment. This was indicated by the profile of the attack, and there has been no reason to revise that assessment. News and blog sites reference reports that the attack targeted an arms shipment that came from Iran.
New reporting indicates another attack in Damascus, which demonstrates a profile more consistent with an attack on a facility. The Tower recounts several explosions on Mt. Qassioun, which dominates the northwest quarter of Damascus and houses major weapons facilities. A Russia Today news item stated that the IAF launched 12 missiles into Syria from Lebanese air space; if valid, that report indicates the IAF used Israeli Popeye air-to-surface missiles to conduct the attack. The Popeye has a range of about 50 statute miles (78km), allowing standoff attacks. An ordnance package of this size, and a pattern of multiple, sequential strikes, fit the profile of an attack intended to badly cripple one or more facilities of industrial character, including weapons storage sites.
The explosive weight capacity of the Popeye is also consistent with the character of the explosions seen in the videos at the Tower piece (link above). I do note that the explosions in the videos appear to indicate strikes on above-ground, non-hardened targets. These are only a few of the explosions; there were presumably more.
As with the reported strike near Damascus at the end of January, rumors are circulating almost immediately that the IAF used “bunker busters” in the strike on 5 May. (Initial report here for Hebrew readers. I haven’t seen this report in English yet for the 5 May attack.)
None of the explosions seen in the videos look like bunker-buster strikes, which would throw up more debris – darkening the explosive bubble – and would in any case exhibit more contained fireballs and plumes, because of the tremendous amount of earth or concrete they are kinetically disturbing. That said, if there were one or more strikes with bunker busters – Israel has the 5,000-pound BLU-109, weaponized as the GBU-28 – the attacking aircraft would have had to enter Syrian air space and conduct a run over the target. That is by no means impossible, but it has not been reported.
If there was a strike with bunker busters, it would presumably have targeted underground weapons storage, either on Mt. Qassioun or perhaps in an area slightly north of Mt. Qassioun where Syrian rebels last fall identified what they call Syria’s largest storage facility for chemical and biological weapons: a hardened facility lying between the suburb of Al-Tal and Aysh Wurur. If Israel has struck something that massive, she will want to follow up with more strikes. The very limited number she could possibly have brought off in one strike event on 5 May would not be enough to ensure comprehensive damage.
It isn’t possible to say for certain yet where all the individual strikes were. No evidence has emerged, at this early hour, to validate any claims that bunker busters were used. But it might emerge later.
The nature and scope of the strikes are what will ultimately reveal their basic purpose. The analysts at The Tower have emphasized the “Iranian arms” aspect, suggesting that Israel’s urgency with these strikes is to prevent the distribution of arms supplied by Iran. That concern is actually a separate one from a concern about Bashar al-Assad transferring his own chemical weapons to Hezbollah, or using them in a way that would threaten Israel.
The IAF would attack two different target sets to address these separate concerns. Interdicting Iranian arms would entail finding the shipments – e.g., in shipping containers or otherwise grouped for transport – and attacking them wherever they are. Controlling what happens with Assad’s chemical and biological weapons would entail attacking his facilities, independent of whether there are or have been Iranian-supplied arms shipments at them. A Hebrew report at Ynet suggests that an enormous fireball propelled aloft during the 5 May strikes came from a rocket storage/fueling facility. Hitting that kind of target would be intended to hamstring the Assad regime’s use of rockets – a reminder that the second basic objective includes preempting Assad himself, or whoever might get hold of his inventory inside Syria.
What Israel is doing at the moment may involve a little of both objectives. Given the real and continuing threat of chemical and biological weapons, and in particular the threat of their being transferred to Hezbollah, it is important not to lose sight of that concern. It is doubtful that Israel intends to “send messages” to Iran with these strikes, at least not as the primary purpose. Israel wants to keep all kinds of advanced or especially dangerous weaponry out of Hezbollah’s hands. That means that Israel will continue to prevent things from getting to Hezbollah – but she will not widen her intervention in Syria beyond a very narrow set of closely related objectives.
Israel will have the capacity to pursue her own objectives, but she does not have the capacity to act on a larger scale in the Syrian conflict. We must not mistake what Israel is doing for a form of surrogacy for the U.S. Israel cannot do the United States’ work for us. We care, of course, whether Hezbollah gets its hands on dangerous weapons – but that is only one of our concerns about Syria and the Middle East. Most of our American security concerns can only be addressed by American action.
The conflict in Syria needs to be settled in a way that is advantageous for the U.S. vision for peaceful, consensual relations between nations. If it is settled in such a way, that will be good for the USA, and it will be good for everyone else, including the Syrian people. That objective has always required that Assad go, one way or another. But it also requires that revolutionary Iran’s radical influence be excluded from Syria. It requires that Russian influence in Syria be counterbalanced, and the potential for threat from it neutralized. It requires that radical Islamists not be the ones to take over Syria, and it requires that a moderate, non-terror-sponsoring government in Syria have the kind of support from the United States that will enable it to stand against radical Islamists and outside geopolitical forces.
Israel cannot accomplish any of these things. No one can, except the United States. We can’t do it all by ourselves, either, but no allied effort in these matters will prosper without active American leadership. Ultimately, however, the biggest point of all is that the problem of the Syrian conflict is not defined as the “threat of WMD,” and therefore, Israel cannot fix it all for us by targeting the arms that may get to Hezbollah, or be otherwise used against Israel. Israel is doing what she has to, and it is quite proper for U.S. officials, including President Obama, to endorse her actions as fully justified. But we are not doing what we should be doing, and that lack is one that no other nation on earth can address.