BEIRUT — Israel’s air strikes against military targets in central Syria, reportedly including a high-security facility linked to Damascus’ chemical weapons programme, marked a sharp escalation in the Jewish state’s bombing campaign and heralded similar attacks that could unleash a new war in the Middle East.
The strikes September 7 came shortly after the anniversary of a 2007 Israeli strike that destroyed a secret Syrian nuclear plant near the city of Deir ez-Zor close to the Iraqi border. They also coincided with the upcoming anniversary of Israel’s latest war with Hezbollah, which erupted in July 2006, in which the Lebanese fighters battled Israel’s vaunted military to a standstill — the first Arab irregulars to do so.
The latest raids took place as Iran accelerated its strategic ambitions to expand its military power throughout Iraq and Syria and complete plans for establishing at least one and possibly two land bridges between the Islamic Republic and the eastern Mediterranean that would cement Tehran’s grip on Syria.
The project has intensified Israeli fears that Iran and Hezbollah are building up military forces on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks the Jewish state’s Galilee region.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military intelligence, stressed on Twitter: “The attack sent three important messages. Israel won’t allow for empowerment and production of strategic arms.
“Israel intends to enforce its red line despite the fact that the great powers are ignoring them. The presence of Russian air-defence does not prevent air strikes attributed to Israel.
“Now it’s important to keep the escalation in check and to prepare for a Syrian-Iran-Hezbollah response and even opposition from Russia.”
Four Israeli warplanes carried out the pre-dawn raids. Syrian rebel sources said the targets included the al-Talal branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre near Hama and a military training facility. The United Nations said it is a key component in Syria’s production of chemical weapons.
Former Israel national security adviser Major-General Yaakov Amidror said the attack may have been triggered by a visit to Damascus by Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who reportedly asked the Syrians to hand the facility over to his forces.
The raids coincided with Israel’s biggest military exercise in 20 years on its northern border, involving some 30,000 soldiers. The ten-day drill, which began September 5, was widely portrayed as a dress rehearsal for a war against Hezbollah.
The September 7 attack emphatically underlined Israeli concern that the absence of any US effort to contain Iran’s growing military presence on Israel’s volatile northern border increases the danger of open conflict between the Jewish state and Iran-Hezbollah.
Some Israeli commentators said the al-Talal raid was a sharp escalation in Israel’s intermittent air campaign — nearly 100 strikes since 2012 — aimed mainly at destroying advanced arms shipments to Hezbollah.
In recent weeks, Israel has repeatedly claimed that Iran is building underground precision missile factories for Hezbollah in Syria and even Lebanon itself, in effect establishing a high-tech arms industry for the powerful Shia movement, a key component of Tehran’s territorial expansion.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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