Yesterday at dawn, Israel conducted an airstrike inside Syrian territory. The IAF struck a military research center at Jamraya, not far from Damascus, as well as a convoy of trucks headed from the Jamraya center toward Lebanon.
The Jamraya center is believed to be a storage facility for chemical weapons. (Syria possesses Sarin, mustard and VX gas.) The truck convoy might have been carrying such weapons to Lebanon (i.e., to Hezbollah), although this is not confirmed and indeed not widely suspected. American and European security sources believe it more likely to have been carrying anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets. [UPDATE: AP is reporting that the convoy contained advanced SA-17 antiaircraft missiles. Syria also possesses surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and Yakhont SSN-26 cruise missiles, which have a 300-kilometer range.]
The context for this strike is, of course, the Syrian civil war, which has been grinding on for almost two years at a cost so far of about 60,000 dead. There are several endgames that worry Israel.
- Assad, seeing the writing on the wall, decides to use his chemical weapons against us in a go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory, if-I’m-going-down-I’m-taking-the-Zionists-down-with-me last gasp before oblivion.
- Assad decides instead to bestow the weapons on Hezbollah so that they might keep up the good fight after they pull him out feet first.
- The weapons fall into the hands of the Syrian rebels. This group contains diverse elements, some of which are anti-Israeli (and anti-American). Al-Qaeda are among them.
An unidentified “regional security source” told Haaretz, “This episode boils down to a warning by Israel to Syria and Hezbollah not to engage in the transfer of sensitive weapons. Assad knows his survival depends on his military capabilities and he would not want those capabilities neutralized by Israel – so the message is this kind of transfer is simply not worth it, neither for him nor Hezbollah.”
Syria did not report that the attack on the Jamraya center had taken place until the evening — it did not report on the convoy strike at all — and did not fire back at the Israeli warplanes. Hezbollah has not responded either, verbally or in any other fashion, and Israel and the US are also keeping mum (with the exception that the US has confirmed that it was informed by Israel in advance of the strike). Syria’s non-response seems to suggest that, to Assad’s mind, the last thing he needs right now is to bring the full wrath of the Israeli Air Force down on his head. Hezbollah’s silence could indicate that it doesn’t much like its own chances in a fight with Israel when Assad is no longer in a position to provide full backing.
No one has much to say about this incident except the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said: “If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it.” In other words: lest anyone be emboldened by the Israeli attack into a coordinated military strike to topple Assad, don’t forget that Moscow has Assad’s back.