Analysis

If Israel Did Strike Syrian Arms Facility, It May Have Shot Itself in the Foot

While Thursday’s alleged attack may have seen Israel widen its definition of what it deems a threat, it may give Iran an excuse to increase its military presence and lead Russia to declare Syrian airspace a no-fly zone

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, June 18, 2016
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, June 18, 2016 Vadim Savitsky/AP

>> Why Syria Hasn't Retaliated to the Alleged Israeli Strike

The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center is the code name for part of the Syrian unconventional weapons industry. The center, better known by its French acronym CERS, is commanded by a Syrian general. It is also responsible for Syria’s chemical weapons manufacturing plants, which are reportedly located in three separate sites: Two near Damascus and the third close to the city of Masyaf, northwest Syria, only about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the Khmeimim Russian Air Force base near Latakia.

According to official Syrian reports, Israeli planes attacked CERS from within Lebanese territory early Thursday morning. The reports do not provide details of the damage to the facility and what it made. But an official statement said the attack was meant to raise the morale of Islamic State fighters after they suffered serious casualties in the fighting around Deir ez-Zor. According to President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, Israel not only founded ISIS, it also aided in its recent operations.

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It is not completely clear whether this facility, where they manufacture long-range missiles and artillery shells, also continues to assemble chemical weapons shells. But if Israel knows about such production at the plant, then there is no doubt the United States and Russia know about it too.

We can assume Israel informed Washington before the attack and received the necessary nod of approval.

This was not the first alleged Israeli aerial attack in Syrian territory, of course. But the timing is quite interesting. It comes after Russia threatened to veto any UN Security Council resolution that describes Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and a short time after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi – a meeting Netanyahu returned from without any Russian commitment to bring about an Iranian pullback from Syrian lands.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said, Russia has made a commitment that Israel’s security interests will not be harmed as a result of the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria.

Israeli troops stationed near the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, September 7, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

But the Russian interpretation of the meaning of harming Israel’s security interests is not necessarily the same as Israel’s definition. Given that the presence of Hezbollah forces in Syria is seen as a threat to Israel, how much more so is the presence of pro-Iranian forces deployed near Israel’s eastern border on the Golan Heights, as well as in the area near Daraa in southern Syria?

At the same time, Russia – which itself does not define Hezbollah as a terrorist organization – would find it difficult to force the group’s forces out of Lebanon. That’s mainly because of Iran’s position that sees Hezbollah as an essential foundation for preserving its influence in Lebanon and as an important tactical force in the Syrian war. Unlike in Lebanon, where Iran needs Hezbollah to force the hand of the Lebanese government when necessary, Iran’s influence on the Assad regime is direct and in no need of intermediaries.

Russia, which has acted to limit Iran’s freedom of operation in Syria, recognizes that it must coordinate its actions with Iran if it wishes to fulfill its aspirations to stabilize Assad’s rule.

The Aleppo lesson

Russia has already learned its lessons from Aleppo, when it thought it could implement the cease-fire agreement that was reached at the end of last year without coordinating with Iran – and then realized that the Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah were preventing rebel soldiers from boarding the buses that were meant to take them out of the city, on Iran’s orders.

The Iranian explanation was that because Tehran was not a partner to the agreement, it was not obligated by it. Russia has avoided Syrian negotiations since then, whether local or international, without Iranian participation.

The attack on the weapons facility, especially one suspected of producing chemical weapons, is seemingly an act that should not cause an aggressive Russian response. Four years ago, Russia convinced then-President Barack Obama at the last minute not to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons in Aleppo, and in return co-signed a tripartite agreement in which Syria agreed to destroy or send to Russia its entire chemical weapons inventory. Now, Russia may attempt to prove that the facility did not produce such weapons, but it is doubtful it will strain itself too much in doing so.

By the way, that 2013 agreement included chlorine gas too, which the Syrian army still continues to use.

Russia also understands that Israel’s alleged attack on the suspected chemical weapons plant, similar to the U.S. cruise missile strikes on Syria after the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun in April, is considered to be a legitimate action by the international community.

Even Russia made it clear back in 2013 that it would not object to an attack on chemical weapons stores if the UN decided on such a step, and if it is proved Syria did use such weapons.

The new element in the latest attack – if Israel did indeed carry out such an attack – is that Israel now defines what it sees as a threat in a much broader sense.

The question is whether Russia will accept this definition as part of Israel’s strategic worldview – which sees Syria as a threatening enemy state. Russian agreement to expanding that definition could grant Israel approval for other attacks – such as against Syrian Air Force bases, or even against Syrian ground forces, with the argument that they are considered a threat.

And so, if until now there was a red line between the Russian and Israeli air forces, this time the attack could lead at the very least to Russia imposing stricter “aerial discipline” on Israel. If this happens, Russia could declare that any foreign planes entering Syrian airspace would be considered a legitimate target for the Russian Air Force, except for coalition planes fighting against the Islamic State.

Saving the United States

From Washington’s perspective, Israel has pulled its chestnuts out of the fire. Following numerous reports on the renewed use of chlorine gas by the Syrian army, the Americans would have been forced to act. And this could have caused its relations with Russia to deteriorate even further.

But the “service” Israel has provided to Washington just sinks it even deeper into the Syrian arena. This time, not only as an interested observer knocking on the doors of the superpowers in order to promote its own security interests, but as an active partner whose military presence adds yet another component to the array of forces (which already includes Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria).

But the Israeli element could threaten to spoil Russia’s plans. For example, Iran, Turkey and Russia are about to establish a security zone in the Idlib province, where most of the militia forces of the Al-Shams Front (formerly Nusra Front), which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, are concentrated. This is a region where Iran and Turkey have opposing interests, even though both are interested in a cease-fire.

Turkey wants to use this region as a strategic base for military operations against the Syrian Kurdish regions that border Turkey. Iran sees Idlib province as a strategic outpost to serve as a base for its control of Syria. All three countries are planning a combined attack against the rebel centers, if Russia is unable to enforce a cease-fire according to the model that was built in the southern provinces.

It would seem Israel has no real interest in the Idlib province, except for the concern about Iran’s expansion and settling in there. But the takeover of Idlib – like the military campaign in Deir ez-Zor in southeastern Syria, where ISIS continues to rack up losses – is preparing the diplomatic channels for a permanent agreement.

Russia is striving to demonstrate control of Idlib and Deir ez-Zor by the end of next week, when the representatives of the various parties in the Syrian civil war are set to meet in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The Russians want to present such a takeover as proof of a total victory by the Syrian regime, a victory that would destroy the opposition groups’ tools for applying pressure.

Syrian-Russian control of these two provinces would strengthen the diplomatic working assumption that Assad will continue to be Syrian president, especially since opponents of his regime in Europe, the United States and Turkey – and even Saudi Arabia – have nearly completely withdrawn their demands to remove him as a precondition to any negotiations.

Such a result would obligate Israel to be a partner, even if only indirectly, in the process of establishing a new Syrian government; in the debate over the status of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria; and the guarantees that Russia, and not the United States, can provide in response to the possible threats resulting from such an agreement.

Double-edged sword

Israel may very well conclude that the greater its military involvement in Syria, whether through sporadic attacks or by tightening its military ties to rebel groups, it more it will strengthen its position when the time comes to formulate a political settlement.

But such a view can be a double-edged sword. It will grant Iran a wonderful excuse to increase its military presence in Syria; Russia may reduce or even eliminate its aerial coordination with Israel and declare Syrian airspace a no-fly zone; and Hezbollah could turn the Golan Heights into a legitimate front against Israel as part of its balance of deterrence with it.

There is a big difference between the ability to attack specific targets and a permanent situation of two hostile fronts, one facing Syria and the second Lebanon – especially when Israel’s most important backer, the United States, is sunk deep inside itself and does not want to intervene at all.