x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israel's strikes in Syria muddy a messy conflict

Missile attacks inside Syria serve Israeli purposes – at the price of further complicating the Syrian situation.

The calculations behind Israel's strikes on Syrian military assets on Friday and yesterday are not complicated. Israel has never been hesitant about acting in its own perceived self-interest, with little regard for niceties such as borders.

But these attacks serve Israeli purposes at the price of adding another unwelcome complication to Syria's agony.

News reports say Israel blasted stockpiles of Iranian-made Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles, and perhaps other military assets.

The logic is clear: First, the missiles were likely to end up with Hizbollah in Lebanon, from where they could have threatened Israeli cities.

Second, regime forces, abraded by two years of civil war, are in no position to retaliate. The regime, urgently needing men elsewhere, had already pulled some troops from the Golan Heights border with Israel.

Third, the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, revolted by the excesses of Bashar Al Assad's troops, will be unlikely to summon much energy to denounce this violation of Syrian sovereignty. Indeed, to the extent that the strikes destroy regime assets and rattle regime leadership, they may even be quietly welcomed by some foreign friends of the Syrian rebels.

But here the Israelis may have underestimated their own unpopularity. To the extent that these explosions are perceived as helping Syria's opposition, they will give Mr Al Assad a new opportunity to bid for support from wavering Syrians.

The Israelis appear to have launched their missiles, news reports say, from aircraft overflying Lebanon, not Syria. Lebanon has already protested. To be sure, the Jamraya military research centre Israel hit is just 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border. But another purpose can also be discerned in the Israeli flight plans. Syria has sophisticated Russian-made mobile air defences; how far they have been degraded by war - bases lost, manpower drained - is an issue no foreign military is eager to test directly. In the war's third year, the regime's forces, resupplied by Russia, have proved more resilient than many had expected.

The outside world, meanwhile, looks on in enforced passivity. As long as Russia blocks UN Security Council approval for a no-fly zone or other measures against the discredited and shameless Syrian regime, the US and other powers are at no risk of having to explain military casualties to their voters.

The bitter irony of the situation is that having a few government warehouses smashed by the Israelis, of all people, may be the most help that Syria's civilians will get from the air anytime soon.