Israel bares its teeth

Israel bares its teeth

News reports emerged last week that Israel had struck Syrian positions in Hama; it is already well-known that Israel has been periodically hitting alleged Hezbollah arms shipments to Lebanon since the start of the Syrian war. “In the last five years, [Israel] has targeted arms convoys to Hezbollah at least 100 times,” retired Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said just last month.

But as the details emerged from the Hama strike, it became clear that it was not “a routine operation,” as claimed by former Israeli Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin on Twitter.

The attack, which was neither confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials, targeted the Scientific Research Center, which was allegedly used to produce chemical weapons. Just a day before, the United Nations published a report on an attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80, declaring the Bashar al-Assad government responsible and that sarin gas had been used.

And just one day before that, Israel launched war games that are set to last for around 10 days and be the biggest such exercises in the last two decades. The exercises, which will include the land, air, naval and intelligence forces, feature scenarios such as neutralizing a threat from over the northern border, as well as an operation into Lebanon. 

But the significance of the timing doesn’t stop there. The day Israel struck the chemical weapons factory in Hama just happened to be the 10th anniversary of the country’s “Operation Orchard” to destroy Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear power plant.

Since the start of Syria’s war, Israel has not assumed an explicit stance, following a wait-and-see approach predicated on the maxim of “better the devil you know” with al-Assad in spite of the problems with his regime. With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) turning Iraq and Syria upside down, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that the organization did not present an existential threat to Israel and that Iran has retained its place as the primary threat. As a matter of fact, Iran’s extension of the Shiite crescent to include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon was a major catalyst in bringing Israel and the Gulf states closer together. In the interests of protecting its right to intervene against Hezbollah activities on its northern border, it thus becomes clear why Israel hastily sought military coordination with Moscow after Russia entered the fray in 2015 to aid the al-Assad regime.

With ISIL losing territory, a new phase begins in Syria’s war, but it’s still too early to say whether we’re about to watch the season finale or a grand finale that will end the war once and for all. Ultimately, wars end at the negotiating table, but it is gains on the battlefield that shape the negotiating conditions at the table. 

With the retreat of the putative enemy ISIL, we’re entering a period in which the competition between the war’s direct and indirect actors to exert influence and share resources is about to heat up. Given that there are occasional flare-ups between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian army, one must not entirely rule out the risk of conflict between them in the future. 

Still, it is evident that neither the U.S. nor Russia wishes to confront the other. Importantly, neither the U.S. strike on the Shayrat Air Base in April nor President Donald Trump’s reluctant approval of economic sanctions against Moscow has hurt military coordination in the Syrian theater. Despite all of this, a number of issues remain unclear at present, including the U.S.’s possible stay in the region after ISIL is eliminated, the future direction of Washington’s cooperation with the Syrian Kurds it has directly armed, as well as the possible continuation of the war by a reinvigorated al-Assad regime to extend its area of control. 

As this bargaining continues and the maps are redrawn, Israel is also seeking to ensure its security. The message underlying the strike on Hama is that Israel will not permit Iran and Hezbollah to grow stronger in Syria and will not shy away from using force against possible external threats. 

As for the U.S.’s strike on Shayrat – Washington’s first direct hit on al-Assad – it is notable that it came after Iran demanded a permanent base in Syria and announcements that Hezbollah would station some of its forces in southern Syria. 

Independently from the Astana peace talks and Iranian influence, a U.S.-Russian deal to form a de-conflict zone in southern Syria that will also work to ensure Israel’s security aims can be perceived as an indication that Israel has been helping direct the game plan in Syria in the last quarter.

When viewed from this angle, Israel, which is additionally seeking to shape the regional balances based on its security needs by backing Kurdish northern Iraq’s independence referendum on Sept. 25, has come to bare its teeth at Iran and Hezbollah by hitting Syria.