Israel's government ministers have repeatedly declared that Israel has no interest to attack Syria, but that if Syria strikes us it would face a bitter end. One of the ministers even warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that he could "lose everything" should he decide to launch an offensive.
The officials' statements reflect a lot of self-confidence: Israel has nothing to fear, our deterrence and might are so much greater that Syria would do best to be careful, lest it pay a very high price and could end up "losing everything."
But is this really the current sate of things? It's true, Israel is stronger than Syria and could deal a severe blow to it in the case of a military confrontation, like it did in the Yom Kippur War. But this is not the balance we should take into consideration. There is a much more significant balance influencing the Israeli interest.
This is the balance of mutual damage to the civilian population. Syria, which manufactures and purchases large amounts of missiles and long-range rockets could inflict damage to the Israeli civilian population that is two-three times greater than the damage caused by Hizbullah during the last war.
Its ability to cause damage emanates not only from the missiles' range, but mostly from the size of their warheads. Remember how eight civilians were killed in the Haifa Bay by one rocket with a 100-kilogram (220 lbs) warhead during the war? This is just a fraction of the damage that hundreds such rockets and missiles could cause.
In terms of military capacity, Israel is capable of inflicting a much graver physical damage to the civilian Syrian population. However, as a western country that adheres to the laws of war, international law and universal moral principles, we would not be able to realize our destructive ability in the heart of uninvolved civilian areas. We know this and the Syrians know this. They understand that there is a limit to our restraint, and will not push it.
Silence is golden
However, in the Second Lebanon War they have learned that our "restraint threshold" is rather high and enables quite a bit of leeway, and control over the number of missiles fired each day for a substantial period of time. This way they could claim a large number of casualties, deal a serious blow to the civilians' morale, weaken the government institutions, and undermine Israel's perceived deterrence and its international standing.
Therefore, when examining the practical damage balance, Syria has a big advantage over Israel. With such a working premise, not only do we have no interest to attack Syria or Hizbullah, but rather - Israel has a clear, objective interest to avoid action, provocation or a mistake that could ignite conflict on the northern border. This is the fundamental principle that must guide Israel's policy in the three coming years. Israel's leaders must refrain from making threats or taking confidence-shattering moves that could lead us to a war in which Syria has a clear advantage. We have a slight disadvantage, and we should bear this in mind.
This Syrian advantage is only temporary and will only last until we develop systems capable of intercepting missiles, rockets and perhaps even mortar shells of all ranges. These systems would lower the number of hits to a tolerable level, minimize Syria's ability to hurt Israeli civilians, and tilt the practical damage balance in Israel's favor. In the meantime, silence is golden.
Dr. Shmuel Gordon is an expert on national security and counterterrorism