An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli airforce pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
South of Homs on the road to Damascus there is a small town called Hassia. Beyond the village is a large industrial zone that occupies several square kilometers. On the other side of the road are a series of clusters of buildings laid out behind checkpoints and unmistakably governmental in appearance, with straight roads and gray warehouses.
According to various reports, including Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, it was near here that witnesses claim an Israeli air strike took place on Wednesday.
The full details of what happened are clouded in secrecy, like many other alleged and acknowledged Israeli air strikes in Syria. In August, Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel said Israel had carried out at least 100 strikes in the last five years attempting to interdict weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria.
After the strike Wednesday night, the familiar dance began whereby Syria boasts that it has fired missiles and hit an Israeli aircraft, and an Israeli official makes some general statement about how Israel will continue to protect its interests. In this case it was Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz.
“Israel has previously operated and will continue to operate to prevent weapons smuggling,” he told Army Radio. There are reports about Iranian weapons factories and Hezbollah weapons storage depots in Syria.
The alleged air strikes in Syria appear to have grown in intensity in recent months, as well as in precision and in the wide area they affect. On September 7, a site near Masyaf of the Scientific Studies and Research Center was struck, igniting a large fire. This was supposedly a chemical weapons site. Syria warned of “dangerous repercussions.” On October 16, the same week that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Israel for a visit, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile was fired at Israeli jets that were conducting routine reconnaissance over Lebanon near the Syrian border. Israel Air Force craft struck the Syrian antiaircraft battery, 50 km. from Damascus, an IDF spokesman said.
The ongoing tensions in Syria come as Russia is making major moves to facilitate dialogue in Syria and what it describes as “de-escalation.”
This was clear from a joint statement by Iran, Russia and Turkey after the Astana international meeting on Syria on Wednesday.
The statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website emphasized the reduction of violence, the “progress in the fight against terrorism,” underlining that the conflict in Syria “has no military solution” and that there should be humanitarian aid and “confidence-building measures.”
Another Astana meeting is scheduled for December.
Russia wants to host a “Congress of the National Dialogue” in Sochi on November 18. This would include 33 parties from groups involved in the Syrian conflict. According to the TASS Russian news agency, the PYD and other Kurdish groups have been invited.
The air strike also comes as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was visiting Iran on Thursday. Along with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Putin met with President Hassan Rouhani.
According to Reuters, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told Putin that “our cooperation can isolate America. The failure of US-backed terrorists in Syria cannot be denied, but Americans continue their plots.”
Meanwhile, the US is still not clear on its long-term goals in eastern Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces it backs have crushed ISIS in Raqqa and are moving toward the Iraqi border, capturing oil fields. It has been three years since the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which formed the basis for the SDF, stopped ISIS in Kobane with the help of US air power.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has said the Assad family has no future in Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the efforts of the US-led coalition were designed to defeat ISIS, “The US does not seek to fight the Syrian government or pro-Syrian government forces.”
However, he said the US would use proportionate force to defend the US, coalition and partner forces in Syria. Lt.-Gen. Paul E. Funk, commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told USA Today, “We need to structure ourselves to be prepared for a long-term commitment to building partner capacity in this area.” It is unclear if that includes only Iraq or also eastern Syria.
Confusing US policy, and Russia’s efforts to de-escalate tensions, leave Israel in a bind. It has worked its way out of that bind through a Clausewitz-style “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” In this case it means striking weapons destined for Hezbollah and continually emphasizing that there are red lines to these transfers.
Syria has reportedly used its antiquated SA-5 surface-to-air missiles to demonstrate the “repercussions” to Israel’s actions. According to the October 16 Reuters report, Syria also fired its anti-aircraft missiles over Lebanon, whose airspace has been reportedly violated by both sides. For now, the quiet understanding about Israel’s actions, Syria’s response, Russia and America’s policy, and Hezbollah’s grasping continue.