On Saturday, Israel bombed a Syrian military installation outside Damascus called Jamraya in Mt Qassioun, about 15 kms (10 miles) east of the border with Lebanon, in the mountains near Damascus. In previous days, reported violations of Lebanese airspace had increased and it’s most likely Israel attacked while its planes were still in Lebanese airspace. The purported reason for the attack was to prevent movement of missiles to Hezbollah.
I find the reasons given by Israel to be purely for propaganda and insufficient to explain what drove the attacks. It’s an open secret in the region that Hezbollah has far more missiles In Lebanon right now that in 2006 and those that are stockpiled in Syria for Hezbollah’s use would not significantly change the situation. Hezbollah controls much of the cargo coming in and out of the airport in Beirut and most of its weapons shipments from Iran have been coming in via that route, particularly since the movement of equipment through Syria has become quite dangerous in the last few years as the conflict in Syria has raged. It is true that Syria stockpiles some rather advanced and accurate missiles for Hezbollah but Hezbollah already has inside Lebanon some of the Scud D missiles that were purportedly destroyed by the Israeli raid on Jamraya. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that Syria was thinking of moving those missiles into Hezbollah’s hands. Therefore, it is necessary to look at why the attacks occurred at this point in time.
The main reason I think Israel attacked Jamraya is that it is showing support to the opposition in Syria by weakening the Syrian Army thus continuing the conflict and trying to avert an Army victory. The opposition have recently been routed in several areas of Syria – Homs, Idlib, Qusayr, Daraa and various part of the Aleppo countryside. They are in the process of being pushed out of the Damascus beltway. (These reports do not often appear in western media who seem to only want to report opposition victories but are readily available in English-language media from the Middle East). Opposition supply lines have been cut from Lebanon and Turkey with the Syrian Army and National Defence Militia (a militia trained in guerrilla tactics that does not rely on orders from the army to carry out its work) reporting regular ambushes along the Orontes River with Turkey and the mountain supply routes from Lebanon near Arsal, Otaiba and Tal-Kalakh. This means that it has become increasingly difficult for supplies of new fighters, arms and food/fuel to the oppositions which is increasingly moving its operations east towards the Iraq border and causing clashes with tribal groups in that area.
Israel could be calculating that the Syrian regime will not respond and that it can even up the playing field for the opposition who are in the process of being pushed out of the western part of the country and thus allow the continued destruction of hated enemy. It seems as though in addition to reverses on the ground, much of the opposition’s propaganda war is failing – all their claims of massacres and chemicals weapons use by the regime have not galvanised sufficient assistance from NATO or the GCC to overthrow the regime and now it appears that Carla del Ponte has found evidence that the rebels themselves have been caught using sarin nerve gas, not the regime. It should come as no surprise that Israel is now siding with the opposition since it appears that WINEP, the pro-Israeli think tank in Washington DC with close ties to Israel is hosting meetings with senior Syrian opposition figures.
As for the US role, I can’t imagine that the US did not know about this attack beforehand and perhaps greenlighted it. Both countries would assume (correctly in my view) that the Syrian military is not in a position to fight on two fronts and would therefore not retaliate against the attacks. President Obama would also prefer that US assets not get involved for several reasons: no real domestic support for an attack with the US economy and budget still in a parlous state and all those Russian warships in the Mediterranean. President Obama does not seem to have a preference for open attacks by military assets; rather he prefers the indirect, such as drone attacks or the use of proxies such as the Gulf States supplying the Syrian opposition. But by supporting these attacks, the US gets to project to its allies that it is being strong on Syria and that it is “doing something”.
I think that this is a stupid move geopolitically. To be seen on the side of the Syrian opposition will discredit the opposition in the eyes of many Arabs who are not fundamentalist Islamists. The recent Pew Poll shows that there is no love for Assad among Arabs but there is strong opposition in the Arab world against any foreign intervention. This attack will strengthen that opposition. But that’s not really saying much. While Arab public opinion is strongly against intervention in Syria, Arab monarchs won’t object to the Israeli attack. But the primary reason that I think it’s a stupid move is that it will harden opposition to the rebels in Syria while not causing sufficient damage to the regime to weaken it enough to allow the rebels to gain the upper hand. The Syrians are claiming about 43 deaths and most likely the continuing explosions in the area indicate a loss of ordnance. The loss of ordnance is not that critical and can easily be made up by Iranian and Russian supply. To achieve the fall of Bashar al-Assad it would be necessary to weaken the military, which would require continual aerial forays to hit not just materiel but to also eliminate command structures. Not only is Israel is not equipped to do this (since their resources are strong but really only designed for short, quick wars) but the political fallout from this type of situation upon the region would be horrific. Even moving towards more regular attacks would cause a level of volatility that could have serious consequences in the region, politically, economically and further loss of human life.
In the end, it is painful to watch the cruel game being played in Syria and far more painful for Syrians to endure it. After over 2 years of civil war, it is clear to everyone except some western countries and Gulf States that the Syrian regime is not going to be toppled by the armed opposition, yet just enough support continues to flow to ensure that the violence and bloodshed continues. Syrians, long victims of a repressive police state (a regime of which I am firmly opposed) which has had no problems killing and disappearing its own people, are now also victims to those who wish to prolong the conflict which is causing such great loss of life and placed over a million people in refugee status. It seems that that several NATO countries and the Gulf autocrats, awash in oil money, who support the armed opposition forces are indulging in magical geopolitical fantasies, thinking if they throw enough money at Syria, they'll get what they want.
It’s hard to see a way out of this situation that will end well for the Syrian people.