The reported airstrike on a target in Syria in the early hours of Wednesday morning looks just like over a hundred similar strikes carried out by Israel over the last six and a half years. A missile research center, shared by the Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies, bombed because the work there could help Hezbollah enhance its already bulging arsenal of missiles in the Lebanon valley.
But this is not the first time the target has been hit. It was reportedly bombed twice before in 2013 and 2017. There may have been assets recently stored there or work was restarted that warranted a third attack; those are possible scenarios. Whatever the reason for the attack, it would seem to have been a warning that whoever authorized it – if indeed Israel was responsible, then the highest level of the country’s leadership – wanted it to resonate in much wider quarters.
The warnings issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week over Iran’s plans to build a guided missile factory were echoed later by military officials briefing the media with the latest plans to develop new medium-range missiles for striking at Hezbollah targets, and the Israel Navy’s plans to counter the threat of cruise missiles fired by Hezbollah at Israel’s offshore natural-gas platforms. Hezbollah and the Lebanese leadership did their part in ramping up the war of words with dire threats should Israel go ahead with plans for more energy exploration in contested Mediterranean waters, and to build a new wall on the Israel-Lebanon border.
No one really wants a war now. Hezbollah is still fighting in Syria and needs time to rebuild its forces. Israel is concerned that the missiles hidden in Lebanese villages could hit civilian targets within Israel. But the series of threats all serve a purpose – to try and deter the other side from making more inroads in Syria, in the next stage of the war there.
This is because the Syrian war, despite all the predictions and attempts to convene conferences on the aftermath, is far from over. Syrian and Russian air forces have been pounding the last remaining pockets of rebels in Idlib province, and Ghouta outside Damascus, killing dozens of civilians daily, in some cases using chlorine gas. For Assad there is the desire to enlarge the area he controls. For the Russians, it’s to entrench their presence in the state and also to compete with other nations that are grabbing their own piece of Syria. Once more the Syrian people are paying the price and the international media is barely paying any attention.
Iran is still hoping to extract its quid pro quo for supporting Assad with billions in credit, supplies and the blood of Shia militia members. It has signed agreements with the regime for mining rights, air and sea bases and infrastructure rebuilding. Turkey is currently on a bloody operation in northwest Syria to prevent the Kurds from controlling their own autonomous region. Disrupting the Kurdish forces may lead to a more permanent Turkish presence in these buffer zones.
The only power missing from the picture is the United States. The vacuum that began under Barack Obama, who no matter how many red lines were crossed and civilians slaughtered studiously refused to get involved in the Syrian war, save for airstrikes on ISIS, has continued under Donald Trump. The new administration did launch one symbolic attack on Assad’s forces, following the use of sarin against civilians, and maintains a relatively small force in the northeast, in support of its Kurdish allies. But so far the U.S. has demonstrated no interest in committing the level of forces necessary to have any significant influence on the outcome in Syria.
The Syrian war has not ended. Raging now for nearly seven years, it is no longer a war for the preservation of the Assad regime. That was assured in September 2015, when Russia entered the fray. None of the other players have either the capabilities or will to defy a Russian air force that is fully prepared to bomb civilians into submission to ensure its client tyrant stays in his Damascus palace. But the current phase of the Syrian war, in which Israel, Iran, Turkey and Russia are all now fighting to advance their interests in the bleeding country, will be no less calamitous for the people of Syria and may well suck in its neighbors.