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Israeli strike in Syria, anxiety over Iranian presence

Sep 12,2017 - Last updated at Sep 12,2017

Last Thursday’s Israeli strike against a scientific research facility near Hama, as it was identified by the Damascus government, was the largest since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.

According to Israeli sources, the site was a missile production plant — some alleged it was used to develop chemical weapons — that is linked to Iran and its proxy, Hizbollah.

In the past, Israeli jets targeted military convoys associated with the Lebanese group that is fighting alongside the regime.

Whenever the Syrian government acknowledged the Israeli strikes, it warned of grave consequences and threatened to retaliate at the appropriate time. But both the regime and Hizbollah were careful not to get dragged into a confrontation with Israel.

The timing of the Israeli attack is interesting. It came following clear Israeli objections to a US-Russian deal to implement a ceasefire in southwest Syria, which was reached in July in the Jordanian capital.

While full details of the agreement have not been disclosed, it is understood that it limits Iran-backed militias’ presence in that area that borders Jordan and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Amman had requested, and apparently received, guarantees that non-Syrian government forces will honour a 30 to 40 kilometre distance from its borders. The same should apply to Israel. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his displeasure of the deal public on a number of occasions.

In August, he dispatched his Mossad chief to Washington to deliver Israeli concerns. It is not clear what Israel wants, but it is obvious that it is worried about long-term Iranian presence in post-war Syria and Hizbollah’s access to advanced missile technology.

Netanyahu himself flew to the Russian resort of Sochi on August 23 to meet President Vladimir Putin and present Israel’s case, but it is now known that he returned empty handed.

As much as Netanyahu tried to shake Russia’s alliance with Tehran, and by extension Moscow’s apparent support of Hizbollah’s presence in Syria, his efforts appear to have failed.

The Israeli press disclosed that Moscow put pressure on the UN Security Council to remove reference to Hizbollah and its military activities in southern Lebanon from the final draft resolution on UNIFIL’s mandate last week.

Despite the official Israeli stand that it had no preference on the outcome of the Syrian conflict, it would be naïve to believe that Tel Aviv was not following the military and strategic developments in that country with keen interest.

Its dubious ties to extreme rebel groups in southwestern Syria raise questions about its motives and objectives.

Certainly a weak and divided Syria that is engulfed in chaos for years would suit Israel’s long-term interests.

For Tel Aviv, the Syrian regime remains technically at war with Israel, even though the Golan front had been quiet for over four decades.

The two sides fought indirectly through proxies a number of times, starting with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and most recently, in 2006, with Hizbollah.

A regime collapse in Syria would have created a geopolitical upset for the region, including Israel, but its survival thus far has presented a more difficult set of challenges.

Russia’s military intervention in 2015 changed the dynamics of the conflict.

The US recoil from the Syrian conflict, which was started by President Barack Obama and continues under his predecessor, has firmly established Moscow as the power that has the final say over the future of that country.

Aside from this, Iran and its proxies were instrumental in paving the way for a regime comeback when the Syrian army was on the verge of defeat.

It is not clear where Moscow stands on Iran’s ambitions to create a land corridor between Tehran and Beirut, via Baghdad and Damascus, something that presents Israel with an existential challenge.

The recent Israeli strike was meant to send messages in various directions.

Despite Russia’s absolute control of Syrian skies and its deployment of a sophisticated air defence system, Israeli jets were able to bomb the alleged missile-production facility without hindrance.

Some reports suggested that Israeli jets launched the strike from Lebanese airspace.

The strike is meant to underline Israel’s readiness to take preemptive action in Syria regardless of third-party agreements that do not meet its security concerns.

But the strike does not change the new geopolitical reality in Syria. 

For now, Iran and Hizbollah, Israel’s bitter enemies, are part of a new power structure that is taking shape in that country. This reality offers a number of scenarios for future confrontations.

Certainly Israel’s recent military exercises, designed to simulate a war with Hizbollah, underline its apprehension over the group’s presence in Syria along with archenemy Iran.



The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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