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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Israel's military stance in Syria explained

The threat to its border, rather than outrage over chemical weapons, lies behind Israel's air strikes

Tayfur Air Base in Syria
Tayfur Air Base in Syria

Israel does not tweet its intentions and almost never acknowledges having taken military action, but the country’s most recent strikes inside Syria may signal an escalation in its policy against Iran.

Taking place on Monday amid renewed US threats to attack the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad for alleged chemical weapons use, Israeli air-to-ground missiles reportedly killed 14 people, including senior members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

It was the first presumed Israeli attack since one of its fighter jets was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire in February. Both Monday's and February's attacks targeted the Tayfur air base in central Syria. It is believed to be a launch site for Iranian operated drones, one of which breached Israeli airspace in February.

Israel has repeatedly hit Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria since 2012. But Randa Slim, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said this week's strikes were different from previous Israeli action in multiple ways, notably because Russia, Mr Al Assad's chief international backer, which has troops on the ground in Syria, was caught unawares.

"They were not coordinated with the Russians ahead of time.. basically cornering Iran into a retaliation," Ms Slim said, noting that senior Revolutionary Guard officials were the target.

Syria map
Syria map

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Russia and Syria blame Israel for deadly attack on Syria airbase

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If the timing had anything to do with the United States, it was probably because of US president Donald Trump’s suggestion last week that he wanted to remove American troops from eastern Syria, where they have been fighting ISIS.

"The Israeli strike served as a reminder to the Americans that the objective of containing Iran in Syria should be a priority for the US," Ms Slim said.

"We should look at this test of wills between the Iranians and Israelis, as a process that could lead to a wider war. Only Russia can negotiate this understanding between Iran and Israel.

"I still do not see either party, Israel and Iran and Hezbollah, being interested in moving the conflict between them beyond the rules of the game established thus far."

Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the threat of Iran "setting up shop" in Syria, and "expanding its provision of weapons to Hezbollah" by doing so, explained the Israeli action.

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"The escalation came several weeks ago with the Iranian drone flying over Israel and the shooting down of the Israeli jet. It was an aggressive move and I think it hardened Israel’s view of this threat in the near-term," Mr Levitt said.

Previous Israeli strikes have largely been assessed as targeting weapons marked for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon or pro-Iranian and Hezbollah forces that had come to close to Israel's border, he argued.

US president Donald Trump listens during a meeting with senior military leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Al Drago / Bloomberg
US president Donald Trump listens during a meeting with senior military leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Al Drago / Bloomberg

And Israel's own interests, rather than any desire to punish Mr Al Assad for the purported use of chemical weapons, likely led to the air strikes.

"This is a different type of dynamic than we've seen in he past," Mr Levitt said, also predicting that there would be a response from Tehran.

"Iran has quite successfully built up a foreign legion of like-minded followers, who are going to be available to do things beyond borders in ways that are reasonably deniable," Mr Levitt said, agreeing that while neither side is looking for a full-on conflict, the situation is volatile.

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli fighter pilot and ex-head of Israeli military intelligence, believes that the chemical attack had provided Israel an opportunity to send a message militarily to Syria and Iran.

"The Iranians are determined to base themselves in Syria," Mr Yadlin said. "Israel is determined not to let them do that. And there is a strategic collision that perhaps may have come together because of the chemical issue."

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