It was a hectic night in the Middle East. In the early morning hours, still-unidentified planes struck the Syrian T-4 military air base near Homs. A short time later, Palestinians reported an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip against a Hamas target. The regional upheaval continues – and it seems Israel is no longer sitting on the sidelines, but rather is taking a more active role in the events.
There were reports of casualties at the Syrian base. The U.S. said it is not responsible for the strike. Russian and Syrian officials blamed Israel and Israel refused to comment. Twice in the past – in March last year and in February of this year - Israel has taken responsibility for attacking that very base, where Iranian military advisers are present. In the February strike, the Israel Air Force destroyed an Iranian control center at the base, after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. It was a day of battle that also saw an Israeli F-16 fighter jet shot down.
Israel already set red lines back when the Syrian civil war began. It announced it will act to thwart smuggling of sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and since then foreign media attributed to Israel dozens of aerial strikes against weapon convoys and arms depots in Syria. Last year, another red line was drawn: Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
There are additional developments that should be noted in the context of Sunday night's strike: Assad's chemical attack on the rebels, the growing Russian-Iranian influence in Syria and the signals from the Trump administration about pulling out the American troops from the country. An Israeli strike – if one did indeed occur – should be viewed in the wider strategic context.
Just last Wednesday, the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in the Turkish capital, Ankara, for a summit dealing with arrangements dividing up the power and influence in Syria in the face of the Assad regime’s apparent victory over its adversaries.
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At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump was plying his intention to withdraw American forces from Syria, even if a final decision has not been taken and despite the fact that the idea is opposed by some of Trump’s advisers and generals. Is it any wonder that President Assad or someone who reports to him in the chain of command has interpreted recent developments as a window of opportunity, permitting the regime to massacre its civilians with chemical weapons to speed up the process of eliminating final pockets of resistance east of Damascus?
As in other instances in which proof of Russian involvement could embarrass Moscow, it’s not clear if Assad got a green light from the Russians to act. As expected, Damascus and Moscow are totally denying that chemical weapons were used. And it’s worth resorting to the rule that “nothing should be believed until the Kremlin denies it” (just as Russia denied involvement in the attempted assassination in Britain a month ago of former spy Sergei Skripal). With Russian backing, Assad has continued to engage in mass murder of civilians by various means, occasionally restoring to chemical weapons which shakes the West out of its apathy briefly.
The original sin here, it should be recalled, belongs to the Obama administration, which reconsidered punitive measures against Assad after his regime’s first proven massacre using chemical weapons in the summer of 2013. The agreement reached at the time, through Russian mediation, to get the Syrian regime to relinquish its chemical weapons did in fact dispose of most of Assad’s chemical weapons stocks. But it appears that the regime held onto a certain quantity of usable chemical weapons, in addition to its more frequent use of means that are somewhat less lethal, such as chlorine gas.
Trump is not acting that differently from his presidential predecessor. A year ago this week, Trump did in fact order a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air force base in response to the chemical attack in Syria on Khan Sheikhoun, but it appears that in the process (after the obligatory praise from the media), Trump’s interest in events in Syria had, as a practical matter, come to an end. Even if the United States carries out another punitive attack at this time, Assad knows that he can do almost anything he feels like, with Russian backing, and that the Americans are on their way out.
These events have several implications for Israel. They buttress the assessment about Assad’s self-confidence and his readiness to use any means to restore control over wide swaths of Syrian territory, an approach that will also be seen in the near future in the south of the Syrian Golan. They also again raise doubts about the wisdom of the decision to halt production and distribution of gas mask kits for the Israeli population.
Much of what was decided at the Ankara summit is of concern to Israel. It appears that at the summit, Tehran received backing for a continuation of its efforts to establish a presence in Syria, including in locations near the Israeli border. These are steps that could accelerate Israeli efforts to counter the Iranian presence, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been threatening.
This is an aggressive approach, supported by the head of the Israeli security services, but it may still have consequences – from an American exit from Syria to an Israeli predicament there. In the north, Israel is now walking an ever-thinning line.