The presumed Israeli airstrike within Syrian territory on Wednesday has elicited threats of retaliation from both Syria and Iran. Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, quoted at al-Ahd, a Hezbollah-run news website, contended that his nation could make “a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes,” adding that “Syria is engaged in defending its sovereignty and its land.” In Iran, a deputy foreign minister was quoted by English-language Press TV as saying the “strike on Syria will have serious consequences for Tel Aviv.” He did not elaborate.
Syria’s government-owned media characterized the strike as an act of “naked aggression,” that targeted a “military research center” near Damascus. Yet regional security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, claimed Israel targeted a weapons convoy carrying sophisticated arms on their way to Hezbollah, the U.S.-designated terror group based in Lebanon. An unnamed Western diplomat echoed that assessment. “The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” he said. A source among rebels fighting the Bashar Assad regime concurred as well. “(The airstrike) attacked trucks carrying sophisticated weapons from the regime to Hezbollah,” he contended. Still other analysts expressed the belief that Hezbollah was moving its own weapons out of Syria before rebels could get them.
Regardless, Hezbollah condemned the attack as “barbaric aggression,” expressed its “full solidarity with Syria’s command, army and people,” and claimed the strike was aimed at preventing Muslim and Arab forces from furthering their military development. Syria continued to insist that a “scientific research facility” in Jamraya, ten miles from the Lebanon border, was attacked.
Yet Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, former commander of Syria’s Military Police, and one of the highest-ranking officials to defect from the Syrian government, told the Associated Press by telephone from Turkey that the facility, known as the Scientific Research Center, is a “major and well-known” weapons development site. And while he claimed no unconventional or chemical weapons were produced there, he noted that both Russian and Iranian “experts” can be found at such centers.
On the other hand, Reuters is reporting that “diplomatic sources from three countries” claim that “chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack.” That proximity might explain the contradictory reports about who did what. Syrian rebels claim to have attacked Jamraya with mortars, even as a U.S. official told the New York Times that Israel informed the U.S. of its plans “to strike a military target inside Syria before attacking the research center near Damascus.” Sources near the attack told Reuters they were unable to distinguish whether the complex was attacked from the air or the ground. It is also possible, according to a former unnamed Western envoy to Damascus, that Israel hit vehicles inside the complex, as well as a building there.
Russia, which has consistently supported Assad’s murderous regime despite a current death toll of more than 60,000, also expressed its condemnation of the attack, saying it was engaged in “urgent measures to clarify the situation in all its details.” “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,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The Arab League also chimed in, calling the attack “flagrant aggression and a glaring violation” of Syria’s sovereignty.
Syria summoned Major General Iqbal Singha, head of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, to its Foreign Ministry to complain about the strike. They insisted Israel breached the 1974 Israel-Syria armistice agreement enacted after the last major war between the two nations. Yet UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey claimed that “UNDOF did not observe any planes flying over the area of separation, and therefore was not able to confirm the incident.” UNDOF also reported bad weather conditions, he added.
Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, took the typical stance Israelis take following such military operations. He was noncommittal about Israel’s involvement, even as he hinted the Jewish State could carry out additional missions if necessary. He also emphasized that pinpoint strikes are not enough to prevent Hezbollah from getting Syrian weaponry. “Israel’s preference would be if a Western entity would control these weapons systems,” he said. “But because it appears the world is not prepared to do what was done in Libya or other places, then Israel finds itself like it has many times in the past facing a dilemma that only it knows how to respond to.”
Those weapons include Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles that would enable Hezbollah to take out Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones. Syria’s chemical weapons could also pose a mortal threat to thousands of Israelis, many of whom live in densely populated urban centers. Such an upgrade of Hezbollah’s capabilities could drastically affect Israel’s ability to defend itself against a terrorist group with whom it waged war in 2006. Last week, after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke about the dangers of Syria’s “deadly weapons,” in a country that is “increasingly coming apart,” Israel deployed a part of its “Iron Dome” rocket defense system to Haifa, a northern city battered by Hezbollah in 2006. Israel insists the move was routine and that Iron Dome had been deployed there before. Aviv Kokhavi, the IDF’s intelligence chief, was sent to Washington to notify U.S. officials about the move, while national security adviser Yaakov Amidror went to Moscow for the same purpose.
Israel’s goals are simple: they are not about to let the ongoing disintegration of Bashar Assad’s government and the subsequent chaos threaten their existence, even as they remain well aware of the reality that Western powers currently have little interest doing anything concrete to help. Last Monday, when Netanyahu was meeting with a three-member bipartisan congressional delegation, warning them that the available policy choices for dealing with Syria “are between bad, bad, and worse,” the New Republic published an interview with President Obama who managed to turn reality into a philosophical exercise wondering, “how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
As of now, the answer to that question was provided by the NY Post’s Benny Avni. “As Syria bleeds, the West mostly wrings its hands,” he writes. “Briefing the UN Security Council Tuesday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, apologized for ‘sounding like a broken record’ as he warned diplomats about their failure to unite and act while the country disintegrates. (In lieu of action, America and other powers gathered in Kuwait yesterday, ‘We Are the World’-style, to raise cash for Syrian victims.)”
No doubt wringing hands and raising cash works for a world that has little use for Israel in good times. As we have seen in the most recent bad times, Israel was widely condemned for its use of “disproportional force” when they took out rocket batteries used by Hamas terrorists to fire thousands of missiles into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The deadly chemical weapons and far more sophisticated ordinance that could be moved from Syria to Lebanon, where Hezbollah awaits, is a whole different story. In the end it doesn’t matter if Israel hit a convoy or a weapons plant, or both. The IDF has made it clear: any threat to Israel’s existence will be handled with whatever measures are deemed necessary. There is no clearer “red line” than that.
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