x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israel's actions in Syria could hasten regional spillover

Israel should back the US-Russian attempt to put together the international conference, rather than raising the military stakes in the Syrian war.

It's been 10 days since the Israeli air force attacked a Syrian facility suspected of holding advanced Iranian missiles destined for Hizbollah militants in Lebanon. It was the second Israeli attack inside Syria in the space of as many days.

Now Israel's prime concern is to avert the possible deployment of Russian S-300 air defence missiles in Syria, which could strengthen the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad, at a time when his forces appear to be gaining the upper hand around Damascus.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, after US Secretary of State John Kerry held Kremlin talks last week that resulted in an agreement to hold an international conference on a political transition in Syria.

The Israeli attack on a military base north-west of Damascus on May 5 was the most significant strike seen in the Syrian capital since the conflict began more than two years ago. But the strikes also sent a strong message to both Washington and Iran regarding Israel's "red line", which is linked to the defence of Israeli security.

The message went: watch out, if we feel our security is threatened by Syria or Iran, this is how we will react.

But what did the Israeli action achieve? From an Israeli perspective it was apparently a successful bombing raid on the Syrian arms complex that also killed 42 Syrian troops. Yet the diplomatic and military responses were not slow in coming. The Assad regime proclaimed that the attack was a "declaration of war" and that retaliation would be forthcoming at a time and place of the Syrian government's choosing.

The leader of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that Syria would transfer "game changing" weapons to his militia. Mr Al Assad himself, in an interview with a Lebanese newspaper, threatened "strategic revenge". He said this would come about by opening the door of resistance, turning all of Syria into "a country of resistance".

For now, such threats remain in the domain of rhetoric, although the installation of the advanced Russian ground to air missiles - intended to deter possible western plans to arm Syrian rebels - would be a game-changing move. Mr Netanyahu appealed on Tuesday to Mr Putin to cancel the sale of the weapons to Damascus.

Mr Netanyahu headed for China - a key UN Security Council member - after the Israeli bombing. The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman pointedly called on all sides concerned to "respect Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity". They should also "avoid the use of military force and acts that might raise tension". It was pretty clear who the Chinese had in mind.

Mr Putin, whose government has resisted any attempt by the West to overthrow Mr Al Assad, went so far as to telephone Mr Netanyahu the day after the Israeli strike in Damascus, when the Israeli prime minister was in Shanghai. Mr Putin is reported to have rebuked the Israeli prime minister and warned him against any further attacks on Damascus.

Mr Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game. There is a serious danger that the Syrian civil war - which has already drawn in Iran on the side of Mr Al Assad, and Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in support of the rebels - can spread even further. The double car bombing in Turkey on the border with Syria, which killed at least 40 people last weekend, is a dramatic reminder of the risks.

An open conflict involving Israel must be a nightmare scenario that policymakers in Washington will want to avoid.

For his part, the US president, Barack Obama, spoke to Mr Netanyahu last Wednesday on regional security issues and agreed they would continue to cooperate closely on security. Washington defended Israel's attacks on the Syrian targets as stemming from its right to "defend itself".

Israel certainly has a stake in the outcome to the Syrian conflict. The break-up of the country cannot be in its interests, nor can the victory of rebel forces linked to Al Qaeda. But the Israeli government's efforts should now be put into backing the US-Russian attempt to put together the international conference, rather than raising the military stakes in an already complex war.

It could be that Mr Netanyahu and his military advisers think the conflict will be resolved on the battlefield. That could be the calculation too by both sides in the Syrian conflict.

The Russians have now said that it's unlikely the international conference can be held, as they had originally hoped, at the end of this month. Indeed, sometime in June appears more likely. Inevitably, the preparations will bog down over who will be the "legitimate" negotiators at the table.

But Russia and the United States should be credited with their attempt to bring the war to a conclusion through negotiations, and for at last trying to coordinate their efforts.

Unfortunately, Syria's war is not yet ripe for an international conference. Neither side feels weak enough to hand over to the diplomats. Poor Syria is likely to plunge into even greater bloodshed before the guns fall silent.

 

Anne Penketh is an international security analyst based in Paris

On Twitter: @annepenketh