Israel in early May reportedly carried out its heaviest attacks on targets in Syria since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began in March of 2011, hitting a military convoy and several military installations near the capital, Damascus.
The air strikes were the first direct military intervention by Israel since several of its planes blew up a convoy reportedly transporting anti-aircraft missile batteries from Syria to Lebanon in January. However, it seems that all of Israel’s actions in this regard have been prompted by the same motivation – namely, to prevent the Lebanon-based Shia political/guerrilla group, Hezbollah, from enhancing its military capabilities vis-à-vis Israel by gaining control of advanced weaponry stored in Syria.
The Israeli government did not officially acknowledge that its forces were responsible for the reported raids on a military convoy close to the border with Lebanon on May 4, and on several military installations in the hills on the north-western outskirts of Damascus the following night. However, Israeli officials and figures close to the country’s defense establishment have left little doubt that Israel would take strong action to deal with threats that they have identified in Syria.
Hezbollah as target
Briefings from Israeli defense officials indicated that the targets of the latest air attacks included stockpiles of Iranian-supplied medium-range ballistic missiles that had been placed in Syria since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in south Lebanon. Israel may have suspected that some of these missiles were being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon as a precaution against the risk of the Assad regime falling. Israeli officials have also indicated that they are increasingly concerned about the situation in the area to the east of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where jihadist groups have made advances. Some of these groups could seek to use these areas as a base to attack Israel. Israeli officials have also indicated that Hezbollah could take advantage of the situation to launch attacks from these areas by proxy.
“…the reported Israeli raids unquestionably follow a marked increase in the direct involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict…” – The Economist Intelligence Unit
The Israeli narrative about its security concerns focusing on Hezbollah has been partly designed to refute suggestions that it is intervening in the internal Syrian conflict. The Assad regime has poured scorn on such claims, however, and has accused Israel of acting in concert with the jihadi groups with the aim of reversing the recent military advances of the regular Syrian army around Damascus.
Whatever the case, the reported Israeli raids unquestionably follow a marked increase in the direct involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict, as was officially confirmed by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, at the end of April. In a televised speech, Nasrallah vowed to ensure the survival of the Assad regime in the face of what he described as a joint campaign by Israel, the U.S. and al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists to seize control of Syria. Hezbollah fighters have been active in a stepped-up campaign to push rebel forces out of Shia-populated areas in Syria along the north-eastern border of Lebanon. These areas have strategic importance as they lie close to vital transport links between Damascus and Syria’s Mediterranean ports of Latakia, Tartus and Banias (the latter is Syria’s main oil terminal).
Massacres raise sectarian fears
In an apparently ghastly escalation of this campaign, in early May there were reports of massacres in the area around Banias carried out by regime-affiliated militias against civilians in mainly Sunni Muslim communities. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring organization, said that it had identified 148 people killed in two separate incidents. Syrian state media reported that troops had moved into these areas to clear them of opposition fighters. There were reports of thousands of Sunnis fleeing south from Banias towards Tartus.
The coastal region is heavily populated by Alawites (a Shia group), the minority sect to which the president’s family belongs, but there are significant numbers of Sunnis with roots in the region, particularly in the port cities. During the conflict, many Sunnis displaced from other parts of Syria have taken refuge in this region, which has been relatively secure. It is still unclear whether the incidents in Banias were of local origin or whether they were part of a deliberate strategy of, as activists have termed, ”sectarian cleansing”, possibly linked to the moves by Hezbollah to secure a Shia buffer zone along the border with Lebanon.
US’s ‘red line’ dilemma
The massacres will only add to the growing pressure on the U.S. administration to provide direct military assistance to rebel forces. On May 2, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, admitted that the U.S. was having a “rethink” on this issue, although he cautioned that no final decision had been reached. The potential shift in the U.S. position follows claims that regime forces have employed chemical weapons in their operations – an act that U.S. President Barack Obama has said would constitute the crossing of a “red line” (albeit one with no identified consequences). However, the U.S.’s decision will only be further complicated by the comments of U.N. investigator Carla Del Ponte, who on May 6 voiced suspicions that rebels may well have used the nerve agent, sarin. With the evidence for chemicals weapons use both lacking and contradictory, the prospect of large-scale Western military support for the rebels – let alone a Western military intervention -remains relatively remote, condemning Syria to a prolonged and bloody military stalemate.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
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This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.