Photo: AP/Sebastian Scheiner
Much like its air campaign against Hamas targets inside the Gaza strip, Israel’s airstrike in Syria looks like a well-timed tactical move—and the confusing media reports regarding the attack may be part of the plan.The Jerusalem Post reports that a Western diplomatic source told Iraqi daily Azzaman that the attack took place more than 48 hours before it was leaked by Israel.
Furthermore, the source said the reports about a strike on a convoy carrying weapons into Lebanon were probably meant to divert attention away from the operation’s main objective: To use F-16 aircraft to fire at least eight guided missiles at a military research centre near Damascus.
On Wednesday U.S. officials — who said they were given forewarning of the strike — told The Wall Street Journal and other outlets that the Israelis were targeting a convoy of trucks allegedly carrying Russian-made SA-17 missiles to Hezbollah.
Syria insisted that the reports about the convoy attack were “baseless,” and that the real target was a military research centre in Jamraya, which lies about three miles from Damascus and eight miles from the Lebanese border.
Maj. Gen. Adnan Salo, a former head of the chemical weapons unit in the Syrian Army who defected and is now in Turkey, told The New York Times that the complex produces both conventional and chemical weapons.
The Azzaman source said that the complex is heavily fortified and houses experts from Russia and has been guarded for years by at least three thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guards, adding that the Guards suffered heavy casualties in the strike.
The Syrian rebel commander in the Damascus area told Reuters that rebels attacked the facility with “six 120 millimetre mortars” at about the same time that Israeli planes bombed the convoy.
But there has been no confirmation of the convoy attack besides unnamed diplomatic and rebel sources saying it occurred three miles south of where the main Damascus-Beirut highway crosses the border into Lebanon.
Nevertheless, both strikes fit Israel’s strategy.
The Associated Press reports that “Israeli military officials appear to have concluded that the risks of attacking Syria are worth taking when compared to the dangers of allowing sophisticated weapons to reach Hezbollah guerrillas.”
Transfer of the missiles “would be a game changer … by challenging the ability of Israel’s air force to carry out daily surveillance flights over southern Lebanon and eastern Lebanon along the border with Syria,” Jonathan Spyer, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary centre in Israel, told USA Today.
The attack comes at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is too weak to risk opening a new front with Israel by retaliating.
“Syria is in such a bad state right now that an Israeli retaliation to a Syrian action would be harsh and could topple the regime,” Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University who specialises in Syria, told AP. “Therefore Syria is not responding.”
Meanwhile Iran is busy propping up Assad. On Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there are signs that Iran is sending growing numbers of people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Assad since he’s using up his weaponry.
And Israel appears to have the support of the West. On Thursday UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that rather than condemning the the attack, attention should be focused on addressing ”the root causes” of the Syrian crisis. The White House warned Syria not to transfer weapons to Hezbollah.
Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi told the AP that Israel has no choice but to launch pinpoint strikes on suspected transfers.
“Israel’s preference would be if a Western entity would control these weapons systems,” Hanegbi 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.”
Whether one believes that Israel attacked a convoy or the Jamraya facility — or both — matters less than the fact that Israel has dealt a forceful blow to Syria and Iran while sending a stark message to Hezbollah.
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