In the early morning hours of Thursday, Syria’s al-Tala’i military research facility located in Masyaf was reduced to ash and flames. The Jerusalem Post reports that contemporaneous with the strike on al-Tala’I, a Hezbollah weapons convoy in the vicinity was also hit and destroyed. According to Western intelligence sources, al-Tala’i is a center for the production of chemical weapons. Syria blamed Israel and claimed that at least two regime soldiers were killed in the attack. The regime issued a banal and somewhat hypocritical warning of the “dangerous repercussions of this aggressive action to the security and stability of the region.”
Israeli officials were mute but Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Liberman issued a terse statement shortly after the attack making it clear that Israel reserves the right to act when its interests are affected. “We are not looking for any military adventure in Syria but we are determined to prevent our enemies from harming, or even creating the opportunity to harm the security of Israeli citizens,” he said. This is as close to an admission that we’re likely to witness.
According to former Israel Air Force Head Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, Israel has carried out over 100 precision strikes in Syria in the past five years, mostly aimed at thwarting arms transfers to Hezbollah. Other strikes, like the one carried out on January 18, 2015, have been aimed at sending a message to Iran and Hezbollah that Israel will not tolerate the creation of Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the Golan Heights border. Twelve Iranian and Hezbollah operatives, including the son of Imad Mughniyeh, and an Iranian general, were killed in that raid.
The al-Tala’i facility is located in northwest Syria near the Russian naval base at Tartus and lies 70km southeast of Russia’s largest and most important airbase in the Mideast, Khmeimim air force base. Russia maintains formidable air defenses in Syria, including the S-400 anti-aircraft platform but the Russians refrained from firing. Perhaps the Israeli aircraft simply didn’t register on the S-400’s radar system – Israel is known to possess a sophisticated array of electronic counter measures – or perhaps there is an unspoken understanding between the Israeli and Russian militaries – the two nations maintain effective liaisons to prevent military mishaps. No one can say for certain why the Russians held their fire but either way, it was a clean operation with no Israeli casualties, no collateral damage and no political fallout.
There is speculation that Syria was prepared to hand over the facility to its ally, Hezbollah. This theory was forwarded by former Israeli national security adviser, Maj.-Gen (ret.) Yaakov Amidror. Amidror, who is currently an analyst at Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, cited a recent visit to Damascus by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah where the terror leader requested control of the facility. The acquisition of a WMD facility in the hands of the world’s most dangerous and best armed terrorist organization would represent a strategic threat to Israel, and one that the Jewish State could not easily ignore. Amridor’s theory seems plausible and if accurate, would explain the urgency of the Israeli action.
It is somewhat ironic that the attack on al-Tala’i comes on heels of the 10th anniversary of Israel’s precision raid against Syria’s atomic bomb facility, known as al-Kibar, in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria’s eastern desert expanse. Modeled after Pyongyang’s plutonium atom bomb plant, Syria’s al-Kibar facility posed an existential threat to Israel. Israel presented its dispositive intelligence findings to the Bush administration, which was reluctant to act. Israel then decided to act unilaterally and on September 6, 2007, terminated the threat with a textbook operation executed by F-15I Ra'am and F-16I Sufa fighter-bombers. Israel tied loose ends the following year by liquidating the mastermind of Syria’s WMD program, General Muhammad Suleiman by dispatching him with well-placed sniper shots at his seaside resort villa near Tartus. The liquidation of Suleiman closed the chapter on Syria’s nuclear ambitions.
But Syria still maintained a large stockpile of chemical weapons and under Bashar Assad’s reign, indiscriminately used those weapons against civilian and rebel forces alike. In 2014, Putin and Assad outmaneuvered a pusillanimous Barack Obama and bamboozled him and his dimwitted secretary of state, John Kerry, into believing that Syria had destroyed its chemical weapons arsenal. Subsequent chemical weapon attacks by Assad, including an April 4, 2017 Sarin gas attack that resulted in the murder of 80 civilians, proved that Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal was still very much intact, despite the Obama administration’s self-congratulatory statements to the contrary.
By its actions on Thursday, Israel has once again demonstrated to the world, and sent a strong message to its enemies, chiefly Iran and Hezbollah, that it will act resolutely whenever its interests are threatened by its genocidal neighbors. It remains to be seen whether Israel’s enemies will retaliate but judging by past responses and cognizant of their own limitations, they’ll likely limit their reaction to hyperbolic rhetoric against the “Zionist entity.”