Syrian air defence batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus, in a picture taken early on January 21st, 2019.
(photo credit: STR / AFP)
After three nights of the Syrian regime claiming it has suffered airstrikes from Israel between May 27 and June 3, Damascus is searching for a scapegoat and an explanation. “The aggression comes in conjunction with the terrorists in Hama and Idlib,” Syria’s SANA reported on Sunday night.
The report notes that air defenses contended with an “Israeli aggression,” somewhere near the T4 airbase on the road from Homs to Palmyra. This is a sensitive site for Syria where Iran has a base. Syria admitted that a warehouse was struck and a soldier killed.
But Syria’s regime has an explanation. The attack comes at the same time as there are rising tensions in northern Syria between Damascus and Syrian rebel and extremist groups in Idlib. SANA argues that the Syrian Arab Army, the regime’s forces, have liberated villages from “terrorist groups.”
In September, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement about Idlib. Ankara, which has forces there, was supposed to get the extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham to remove weapons from a buffer zone. But after many months, the Syrian government is fed up with the presence of HTS and other groups, and has been seeking to push the rebels and extremists back.
In addition, HTS has been launching drone and other harassment attacks against the Syrian regime and Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia. “The Israeli enemy has intervened over the past several years to support its collapsing terrorist tools,” SANA claims. It argues that Israel provided support for “terrorists.” This is often a euphemism for the Syrian rebels.
Syria’s government retook southern Syria last summer. Some Syrian rebel medical workers with the White Helmets were transferred via the Golan to Jordan. Israel provided medical care during the years 2013-2018 for thousands of Syrians. Syria’s regime claims it found “Israeli weapons inside terrorist hideouts.”
The rhetoric from Syria comes after Syrian air defense fired at a plane on a routine flight on May 27, after rockets fired from Syria were aimed at an area near the Hermon on the night of June 1. Israel says it takes these incidents seriously.
Syria’s government is grasping for an explanation after it says it suffered airstrikes. It knows that some Syrians, even those who support the regime, have expressed concern online. Is their adversary operating with impunity? Where are the promised air defense systems from Russia, such as the S-300, which was supposed to be operational by now? Damascus has admitted that at least six soldiers have been killed in recent airstrikes.
High-stakes brinkmanship may now be entering the picture. Russia and the US are conducting a trilateral meeting in Israel this month. Moscow is training Turkey to use the S-400 this month as well.
With Russia involved in such close relations with two other major countries bordering Syria, neither of which are close to its Syrian government ally, the situation is both tense and complex. Damascus knows this and wants to link the airstrikes in the South with its problems with Idlib in the North. Syria wants to send the message that these two problems should not continue, because both humiliate the regime in one way or another.
Damascus may have to reach out to its friend in Tehran. Press TV and Fars News in Iran both highlighted the recent airstrikes. Iran-US tensions are growing. Hezbollah has vowed to oppose the US peace plan in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia hosted three summits aimed at condemning Iran. Damascus knows all this and also knows how much of the region now sits atop a teetering structure, like one of those Jenga blocks games. Too many airstrikes and too much tension, and the peaceful structure will fall.
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