The weapons manufacturing plant that occurred early Thursday morning in western Syria is a site clearly identified with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The exceptional attack, which foreign media are attributing to the Israel Air Force, appears to be a message to the world powers that maintain a prominent aerial presence in the area. Over the past two years, Russia has invested huge efforts in saving and rehabilitating the Syrian president.
The bombing is not routine, either in its target or 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 military theater and on other fronts.
But most of these forays were designed to quell efforts to strengthen Hezbollah and other terrorist and guerrilla groups. This time, according to Syrian reports, the target was a government one – a missile production facility run by the Assad regime – rather than another Hezbollah weapons convoy destined for Lebanon.
Over the past year, senior Israelis have highlighted their concerns following the wide steps taken by the Iranians to try and enlarge and upgrade the supply of precision missiles in Hezbollah’s possession. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi have all made reference to this in public appearances.
For several years now, Hezbollah has maintained a huge weapons arsenal, containing between 100,000 and 130,000 missiles and rockets (according to various estimates). If the proportion of precision missiles is increased and their precision improved, that could enable the organization to inflict more devastating damage to the Israeli home front in a war.
In accordance with its declared policy, Israel is acting to prevent Hezbollah improving the quality of its weapons. The chaos the Syrian civil war has caused, during which serious damage has been inflicted on the capabilities of Assad’s army, has seemingly made this easier for Israel. Syria has for years been a no-man’s-land that no one has controlled. That changed with the arrival of the Russians two years ago.
According to foreign media, the deployment of Russian squadrons in northwest Syria since September 2015 hasn’t entirely halted the Israeli attacks. But the strategic reality has become more complicated. The prime Russian interest is the survival of the Assad regime. For Moscow, it is important to show that the regime is stable and that Russia is the party dictating what takes place in Syria. The attack on the facility – the Syrian Scientific Researchers Center – undermines that image, and could concern the Russians.
The timing of the action attributed to Israel is sensitive. At the end of July, in a Russia-led effort, the Assad regime reached a partial cease-fire with Syrian rebel groups. Although the fighting has continued in various regions, its intensity has declined in many places. 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.
Consequently, 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 into account; we’re capable of disrupting the process of a future settlement in Syria if you insist on leaving us out of the picture.
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.
Israel will have to see how recent developments are received in Moscow, Washington and Tehran. The response won’t necessarily come immediately.
Russia is not hostile to Israel but, above all, it looks after itself and Assad. The Russians will also take the consequences on countries in other areas into account, as well as its tangled relations with the United States – which has been acting as a present-absent party in the Middle East for a long time now.
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.