The wave of airstrikes Israel carried out on Syria overnight not only demonstrated how it’s being drawn into the civil war there, but also the challenges awaiting Israelis on a battlefield crowded with non-state actors.
Israel launched the attacks, which the Syrian government said killed one soldier and injured seven, to retaliate for the injuries to four of its own soldiers by a booby trap buried along the border fence with Syria the day before. The device was detonated after the Israelis left their armored vehicle to proceed on foot toward a shepherd, who may have been stationed near the fence to draw them toward the bomb according to the Israeli military. It was the fourth violent incident on Israel’s northern border this month, and the first to result in injuries, one of them serious.
Yet there was no sign that the Syrian military was involved in placing the booby trap or was involved its detonation. Israel apparently struck a divisional headquarters, a training base, and an artillery battery because those sites were fixed, near the border, and available as targets. It may not have had any other options. Of the four known armies operating on the northern side of the border fence, only one, clad in the fatigues of the Syrian Armed Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, has a fixed address. So that’s where the missiles were directed.
“We hold the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained in a statement, “and if it continues to collaborate with terrorists striving to hurt Israel then we will keep on exacting a heavy price from it and make it regret its actions.”
In the Israeli media, blame for the strike was laid at the feet of Hizballah, the Shiite militia that supports Assad. No evidence was provided, but Hizballah had vowed revenge for Israel’s Feb. 24 attack on a weapons convoy. It was the sixth such airstrike aimed at preventing Hizballah from moving advanced weapons systems out of Syria, but the first to hit inside Lebanon, the militia’s home base.
Hizballah is a non-state actor mostly in name. It fields some 20,000 fighters and possesses a huge military infrastructure. But while many of the fighters are working in Syria, where they have helped turned the tide of the war toward Assad, the organization’s infrastructure is based in Lebanon. And for political reasons, Israel is not eager to send its planes where their bombs would be seen as punishing not only Hizballah but also the Lebanese state that the West, including Israel, prefers to shore up as a counterweight.
“For us it’s very important to give the Lebanese Armed Forces its sovereignty, its ability to carry out its duty,” a senior Israeli officer on the Lebanese border told TIME in a January interview.
Already arrayed along Israel’s border with Lebanon, Hizballah is also now free to operate along the portions of the border with Syria still controlled by Assad’s forces. However, in a stretch of border that for several miles abuts territory held by the Free Syrian Army—the most moderate of the rebel groups—Israel will even allow the FSA to leave its wounded fighters near the fence for retrieval by the Israelis, who take them to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
Farther to the south, however, where the borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan come together, Syrian territory is held by rebels of a more fundamentalist streak, according to Israeli officials. Across the entire theater of war, the most effective militias remain those aligned with al-Qaeda.
“What we see is many organizations from the area coming to power,” says the senior Israeli officer, “and all these organizations have a common enemy, which is us.”
The same is true on Israel’s southern flank. Jihadi groups have made a battleground of Egypt’s largely ungoverned Sinai peninsula. And in the Gaza Strip, militant Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad have launched scores of rockets toward Israel’s civilian population. The groups are all more radical than Hamas, the militant organization that won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and a year later took over Gaza outright.
Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, but the rising challenge from more radical groups has prompted some Israeli opinion leaders to officially recognize it as a government. In a column published on the news site Ynet by former national security adviser Giora Eiland, the operative logic was the same that led Israeli jets to government targets in Syria: “The more Gaza is a state, and the more we treat it as one, we’ll have more stimuli against it, stimuli which can force it to maintain peace and quiet, which is our main interest.”
The same holds true to the north, of course. What’s less clear is how much of the Syrian state actually remains to be engaged, or deterred, by Israel’s military.