February 4, 2013

Red lines crossed in Syria?

On the last day of January, Syrian news agencies announced that Israel had carried out air strikes within Syria against a convoy that was allegedly transporting weapons to Hezbollah and against the Jamraya research centre in Damascus province. The former was reportedly loaded with ‘game-changing’ sophisticated weapons (such as SA-17 air defence missiles), whereas the latter was allegedly conducting research associated with chemical and biological warfare. It appears that Israel informed the US administration in advance about its intention to strike targets in Syria. Moreover, high-ranking Israeli officials visited both Moscow and Washington prior to the attack.

On the last day of January, Syrian news agencies announced that Israel had carried out air strikes within Syria against a convoy that was allegedly transporting weapons to Hezbollah and against the Jamraya research centre in Damascus province. The former was reportedly loaded with ‘game-changing’ sophisticated weapons (such as SA-17 air defence missiles), whereas the latter was allegedly conducting research associated with chemical and biological warfare. It appears that Israel informed the US administration in advance about its intention to strike targets in Syria. Moreover, high-ranking Israeli officials visited both Moscow and Washington prior to the attack.

The Israeli air raids are a very significant development in several respects. For a while, Israel has maintained very high readiness to prevent Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and advanced conventional weaponry from falling into to the wrong hands. However, no action was taken without the consent of its neighbours. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu had previously contacted Jordan at least twice about launching strikes against Syrian WMD objects, but the Jordanians responded negatively in both cases. Now the trigger has been pulled, which means that the Israelis detected a threat they could not ignore, but had to confront instantly.

The Israeli attack suggests that the Syrian conflict is beginning to threaten fundamental security interests of Western powers and Israel. The situation on the ground has become very stark indeed. Analyses by the US Institute for the Study of War and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggest that Bashir al-Assad’s regime is under intense pressure, with battles raging in and around Damascus and the opposition in control of 6075 % of Syria. Opposition fighters have captured important military bases, acquired heavy weaponry and their strength keeps growing. Bashir al-Assad’s military options continue to decrease, with the use of WMD against rebels remaining a distinct possibility. Furthermore, Syrian government forces have been firing SCUD and Fateh missiles at the rebels since December 2012. Some reports suggest that the regime is at high readiness to use chemical weapons, whereas the rebels have accused Syrian troops of already using non-lethal chemical weapons.

The second aspect of the Israeli attack is related to its effect on, and its perception by, the Arab states, the Syrian opposition, the al-Assad regime and the forces supporting al-Assad. The Arab League and Russia condemned the attack. From their perspective, it was nothing but unprovoked violation of Syrian sovereignty and international law. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah all reacted angrily. Syria threatened with a possible ‘surprise attack’ and Iran promised ‘dire consequences’ for Israel. Paradoxically, both the rebels and the Syrian government attempted to use the Israeli action against each other. The rebels initially tried to claim the attack on Jamraya themselves and pointed to the lack of Syria’s retaliation against Israel as a sign of the regime’s weakness. In return, the government cast the rebels as allied with the ‘Zionist enemy’. Negative reactions to the Israeli air attack were to be expected and they only underline the highly extraordinary circumstances that led Israel to attack the targets in Syria.

Finally, there is one more contributing factor: the pressure that the conflict exerts on the neighbouring states. The civil war has claimed more than 60,000 lives and there are presently over 730,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. The Jordanian authorities say that they have almost exhausted their resources for supporting refugees who are flowing into the country. The growth of radicalism and the spread of Islamist ideology threaten the stability of moderate regimes in the region.

Does it all mean that the moment of truth regarding the red lines (and consequently – taking action) in Syria has arrived? It is quite possible. Nearly two years of fighting have pushed Bashir al-Assad into the corner and have given rise to strong radical Islamist forces within Syria. With the regime on the verge of collapse, the destiny of its weaponry remaining uncertain and the neighbouring states staggering under the mounting burden, will the fate favour those who dare?

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