Exceptional strike, attributed to Israel, signals Netanyahu can disrupt a ceasefire in Syria if Israel’s security interests are ignored
Trump and Putin are the real targets of Israel’s alleged strike in Syria. FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to an Israeli ‘Adir’ F-35 stealth fighter GPO, Kobi Gideon
The incident that occurred early Thursday in western Syria – the bombing of an arms plant that the foreign media is attributing to the Israel Air Force – is exceptional both in its target and its timing. In an interview with Haaretz last month, outgoing air force chief Amir Eshel said that over the past five years the air force had launched attacks on the northern front and elsewhere nearly 100 times.
But most of these forays were designed to quell efforts to strengthen Hezbollah and other terrorist and guerrilla groups. In the current case, according to reports from Syria, the target was a government target: a chemical weapons plant – or according to another version, a missile plant – belonging to the Assad regime rather than a warehouse or weapons convoy for use by Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The timing of the action attributed to Israel is sensitive. At the end of July, in an effort led by Russia, the Assad regime reached a partial cease-fire with rebel groups. Although the fighting has continued in various areas, its intensity has declined in many places and the agreement marks a continued stabilization of the regime, which faced a possible collapse just two years ago.
The United States, whose interest in Syria has been on the decline, acceded to the Russian initiative. Washington and Moscow also failed to heed Israeli protests that the agreement to reduce friction in southern Syria failed to require Iran and allied militias to steer clear of the Golan Heights.
Therefore the attack attributed to Israel, the first to be reported since the agreement was reached, may be interpreted as an Israeli signal of sorts to the world powers: You still need to take our security interests in account. We’re capable of disrupting the process of a future settlement in Syria if you insist on leaving us out of the picture.
The bombing took place a day after the release of a UN report that clearly accused the Assad regime of systematically using chemical weapons against the rebels and civilians. According to the investigators, the Syrian army used chemical weapons seven times between April and July this year, including the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun in which at least 83 civilians were killed. (And after which U.S. President Donald Trump took ordered a cruise-missile attack on the Syrian air force base near Homs.) The regime continues to use sarin gas, and often also chlorine, against the rebels, despite giving up most of its chemical weapons stock following an agreement on the subject in the summer of 2013 with Russia and the United States.
The UN report, and the bombing of the plant (if chemical weapons have in fact been produced there), suggest that expectations regarding the 2013 agreement were too optimistic. Israel, which following that agreement stopped distributing chemical-weapon-protection kits to its civilians, is entitled to see itself as troubled about such a danger. But it’s clear that the main risk posed by the regime’s chemical weapons is to Syrian civilians in areas under rebel control, not neighboring countries.
Since the attacks attributed to Israel began in January 2012, the Assad regime has shown restraint in the vast majority of cases, other than in one incident in March this year when missiles were fired at Israeli planes after an attack near the town of Palmyra in eastern Syria. One missile was intercepted by an Arrow missile over Israel.
At first, the Syrian regime totally ignored most of the attacks. At later stages, it would accuse Israel and sometimes even threaten a response, but it didn’t follow through. The reason is clear: The damage sustained by the regime from the responses was marginal compared to the harm to civilians in the civil war, and the last thing President Bashar Assad wanted was to drag Israel into the war and tip the balance in the rebels’ favor.
Now the circumstances are different. Assad is more confident about keeping power and enjoys strong Russian and Iranian support. In the coming days, Israel will have to see how the recent developments are received in Moscow, Washington and Tehran.
This comes against the backdrop, beginning Tuesday this week, of a large Israeli military exercise based on a war scenario with Hezbollah. In fact, Israel is taking pains to declare that the exercise was planned nearly a year in advance and that it has no warlike intentions. But the fact that the exercise was carried out has raised the anxiety threshold among Hezbollah’s leaders.
Al-Manar, the Hezbollah television station, declared Wednesday that Hezbollah isn’t worried about a war. That’s very inaccurate. To a great extent, Hezbollah, like Israel, is worried about a war and would prefer to avoid one – but in the Middle East things sometimes happen when you don’t exactly intend them.
The early morning attack came exactly 10 years and a day after the bombing of the North Korean nuclear facility in eastern Syria, which U.S. President George W. Bush and others attributed to Israel. Last time (and then too, by the way, an attack came during a major exercise by the air force) a war was averted. That’s the hope this time too.