Good Neighbours? Israel in Syria

When reports of airstrikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad began to appear last night, exactly who was striking what was initially in question.

Evidence was pieced together fast. Observers rapidly determined that the target of the aerial attack was a regime emplacement, Tiyas airbase (also called T4), which lies in Homs governate.

The base plays host not only to regime forces, but also to forces loyal to its Iranian allies and backers, at least four of whom have latterly been reported killed by Iranian state media.

The regime itself attempted, at first, to blame the United States.

This was not an entirely unreasonable leap. The Americans would have had justification to strike the regime that night. President Trump attacked ‘Animal Assad’ the previous day, following the latter’s likely use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma, a town within besieged eastern Ghouta, an insurgent enclave now nearly overrun by regime forces.

Another candidate was France. President Emmanuel Macron has promised repeatedly to intervene against the regime should it use chemical weapons. He has never made good on this promise; but something felt different about the attack on Douma – the unusually high casualty count, the visceral horror, increasingly repeated but never diminished, of watching children choke on poisoned air.

Very soon, however, the relevant denials were issued. No member of the global coalition tasked with fighting the Islamic State group (IS) was involved, the United States said. Clips appearing to depict what sounded like warplanes flying over Lebanon soon began to circulate.

That left only one candidate.

Though the state of Israel has not confirmed its involvement – as is usual – it is overwhelmingly probable that the strikes reported last night were Israeli.

Though the proximate cause for this attack could be called specific and contemporary – the regime’s chemical atrocity and the prospect of punitive American and perhaps French action to come – it takes place amid an ongoing and long-standing Israeli air war against the Assad regime.

Before last night, the most recent major Israeli intervention in Syria took place when an Israeli plane was forced to crash land by regime anti-air fire in mid-February. The next day, Israel began an extensive series of attacks against regime targets which, in the initial estimation of Israeli officials, may have destroyed up to half of the regime’s capacity to defend itself against attack from the air.

The scale of that intervention was greater than usual, but it fits a pattern of Israeli action in Syria, aimed both at the Assad regime and Iran, as well as affiliated proxies and militias.

In what are estimated to total over one hundred separate strikes, Israel has repeatedly attacked the regime, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and forces loyal to the Iranian proxy Hizballah, which are fighting on behalf of Assad in Syria.

Some examples. Last November, Israel struck at Hizballah’s supply of arms. That December, it attacked regime and Iranian targets. Early in February, missiles reported to be Israeli struck a regime military complex in Damascus.

This is part of a wider Israeli strategy in Syria which attempts to counter not just the unrestrained violence of the Assad regime, but what Israeli policymakers see as the creeping tendrils of Iranian influence.

The growth of Iranian strength in Syria – including the direct deployment of Iranian troops and the marshalling of tens of thousands of proxy fighters – terrifies Israel. Iran and its proxies want Israel not simply opposed but eradicated. These things cannot be pushed to one side in the Israeli consciousness.

That the Assad regime might endure, and because of its weakness be tightly bound to Iran and other members of the ‘axis of resistance’ aimed primarily at Israel, remains a persistent worry.

The axis hates Israel already. But especially recently, Israel has not endeared itself to the regime.

Specifically since an organised and armed opposition to the Assad regime emerged at the beginning of the decade, Israel has undertaken multifarious operations inside Syria.

In Operation Good Neighbour, Israel provided basic medical aid to thousands of Syrians. The regime sees this not only as an infringement of its sovereignty, but also an attack on its ability to treat Syrians exactly as it likes – as brutally as it wants – without outside interference.

Israel has also established functional relationships with Syrian armed groups who control territory bordering the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the Six Day War.

Since the regime sees all opposition to itself not only as illegitimate but also as a threat to its survival, these Israeli actions are unlikely to be viewed charitably.

Israel’s justification for interacting with armed groups is like its justification for repeatedly striking forces loyal to Assad and Iran. It is partially self-interested, and partially born of prosaic, common sense policy.

In the case of last night’s strikes, Israel can stand fairly on the usual retributive justification – the rationale that chemical crimes cannot go unpunished and that the brutal Assad regime must be made to face the consequences of its actions.

But more broadly, Israel acts against Assad with the confident self-interest inherent in opposing a nearby warlord willing to use weapons of mass destruction indiscriminately.

And above all that, to Israel’s mind, confronting the regime and Iranian forces in Syria remains essential to its security. The Israeli military’s Twitter spokesman drew followers’ attention to the Iranian presence at the T-4 airbase in February. It is inconceivable that the base was not already on a list of pre-approved targets, ready to be struck at a suitable interval.

With the possibility of American and French action to come, Syria’s airspace may become crowded – and fast. Far better, political and military leaders think, for Israel to get on with hitting its targets first and without complication.

The strikes last night must not be misinterpreted. They were not a rapid reaction undertaken without serious forethought and planning. Nor were they an act of Israeli charity, or a one-off response prompted by a visceral reaction to an exceptional demonstration of the regime’s barbarity. Israel’s aerial campaign in Syria must be seen as part of a sustained attempt to oppose Assad’s and Iran’s worst excesses, something justified by expedience and, in this case, morality.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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