Israel defence Forces | FlickrAccording to unconfirmed reports by the Free Syrian Army and others, Israeli jets flew over Damascus on Saturday morning, circled Assad’s palace, and then bombed a chemical plant.
If it really happened, the strike could be a both risky and prudent move for Israel.
“The most proportional response (to limited chemical weapons use) would be a strike on the units responsible, whether artillery or airfields,” said Jeffrey White, a former senior official at the Pentagon’s defence Intelligence Agency and a Middle East expert who is now a defence fellow at the Washington Institute For Near East Policy told Reuters.
“It would demonstrate to Assad that there is a cost to using these weapons – the problem so far is that there’s been no cost to the regime from their actions.”
One-off strikes are among the most viable ways to intervene in Syria, with the U.S. and allies wary of getting too deeply involved. They may also serve as a way to rein in Assad without deposing him and risking the chaos that follows.
Israel also has defensive reasons for bombing Syria.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence who directs the Institute for National Security Studies, told Washington Post there are four types of weapons whose transfer to militant groups would not be tolerated: advanced air defence systems, ballistic missiles, sophisticated shore-to-sea missiles, and chemical weapons.
Israel has decided that stopping the spread of these weapons is worth conducting targeted strikes, and the risk of starting a war.
But there is a gamble with this aggressive strategy.
The last time Israel bombed Syria — in January when its planes supposedly bombed a weapons convoy and a military research centre without even leaving Israeli air space — Russia and various antagonistic Middle Eastern states immediately condemned the action. Syria delivered a letter to the United Nations declaring its right to self-defence. Iran promised there would be “grave consequences.”
Another strike, this time supposedly in Syrian air space and attacking Syrian infrastructure, would represent a significant escalation.
It would also confirm that we have entered “a new and more volatile phase in the regional repercussions of Syria’s civil war,” as described by Washington Post’s Joel Greenberg and Babak Dehghanpisheh after the January attack.
Finally, there’s the question of whether the U.S. was involved at some level of the supposed Israeli air strike.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Fox News Sunday that while the U.S. and Israel “can’t discuss details, we are working out ways we can address this threat” — indicating that the U.S. may have been involved if there really was an attack.
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