Israeli strikes on Syria heighten fears of new war

Smoke billows from the Syrian side of the border the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Israel’s air strikes against mili­tary targets in central Syria, reportedly including a high-security facility linked to Da­mascus’s chemical weapons programme, marked a sharp esca­lation in the Jewish state’s bomb­ing campaign and heralded similar attacks that could unleash a new war in the Middle East.
The strikes September 7 came shortly after the anniversary of a 2007 Israeli strike that destroyed a secret Syrian nuclear plant near the city of Deir ez-Zor close to the Iraqi border. They also coincided with the upcoming anniversary of Israel’s latest war with Hezbol­lah, which erupted in July 2006, in which the Lebanese fighters bat­tled Israel’s vaunted military to a standstill — the first Arab irregulars to do so.
The latest raids took place as Iran accelerated its strategic ambi­tions to expand its military power throughout Iraq and Syria and complete plans for establishing at least one and possibly two land bridges between the Islamic Re­public and the eastern Mediterra­nean that would cement Tehran’s grip on Syria.
The project has intensified Israeli fears that Iran and Hezbollah are building up military forces on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks the Jewish state’s Galilee region.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Is­rael’s military intelligence, stressed on Twitter: “The attack sent three important messages. Israel won’t allow for empowerment and pro­duction of strategic arms.
“Israel intends to enforce its red line despite the fact that the great powers are ignoring them. The presence of Russian air-defence does not prevent air strikes attrib­uted to Israel.
“Now it’s important to keep the escalation in check and to prepare for a Syrian-Iran-Hezbollah re­sponse and even opposition from Russia.”
Four Israeli warplanes carried out the pre-dawn raids. Syrian re­bel sources said the targets includ­ed the al-Talal branch of the Syr­ian Scientific Studies and Research Centre near Hama and a military training facility. The United Na­tions said it is a key component in Syria’s production of chemical weapons.
Former Israel national secu­rity adviser Major-General Yaakov Amidror said the attack may have been triggered by a visit to Damas­cus by Hezbollah Secretary-Gener­al Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who reportedly asked the Syrians to hand the facility over to his forces.
The raids coincided with Israel’s biggest military exercise in 20 years on its northern border, involving some 30,000 soldiers. The ten-day drill, which began September 5, was widely portrayed as a dress re­hearsal for a war against Hezbollah.
The September 7 attack emphati­cally underlined Israeli concern that the absence of any US effort to contain Iran’s growing military presence on Israel’s volatile north­ern border increases the danger of open conflict between the Jewish state and Iran-Hezbollah.
Some Israeli commentators said the al-Talal raid was a sharp escala­tion in Israel’s intermittent air cam­paign — nearly 100 strikes since 2012 — aimed mainly at destroying advanced arms shipments to Hez­bollah.
In recent weeks, Israel has re­peatedly claimed that Iran is build­ing underground precision missile factories for Hezbollah in Syria and even Lebanon itself, in effect estab­lishing a high-tech arms industry for the powerful Shia movement, a key component of Tehran’s territo­rial expansion.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.