Israeli air attacks near the Syrian capital Damascus have changed the dynamics of insecurity for the whole region, as Syria’s civil war transforms into a cross-border conflict.
Israel said it struck stores of Iranian missiles bound for Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Syria. Even though Israel has to plan for whoever might eventually replace the regime of Syrian President Assad, officials have said Israel is pursuing its own conflict – not with Syria but with Iran.
Iran, Syria and Lebanon form what has been dubbed a Shiite Crescent alliance. Israel must avoid Hezbollah getting missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel attacks Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Israel has denied it is taking the side of Syria’s Sunni rebels, and it has proved it will do what it sees as necessary to prevent Hezbollah from getting heavier weapons.
But analyst Alon Liel said it has an additional, wider communication challenge: “If somebody in the region, especially in Syria or Lebanon, understands these attacks as a direct intervention in the civil war, it might be a real problem for Israel.”
Syria’s allies want Israel’s actions to be seen as intervention in the civil war. Before the raids, the leader of Hezbollah warned: “Syria has real friends in the region and the wider world who will not allow the country to fall into American or Israeli hands.”
An Iranian former commander of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard unit, Hossein Kanami Moghaddam, said: “As Syria’s strategic ally, Iran might send troops to Syria if Israel launched a bigger military attack on Syria. Iran can do that.”
Regional expansion of the Syria conflict is also high in ordinary people’s minds. Activists in the Palestinian city Ramallah said attacking Syria is tantamount to attacking all Arab countries.
Many analysts have said that Assad could ultimately benefit if more players got involved militarily in Syria’s conflict. Egypt, for one, condemned Israel’s air strikes as a breach of international law that it said “made the situation more complicated”.
Another complication is that, according to war crimes investigator Carla del Ponte with the UN, Syrian rebels may have used the nerve agent sarin. She did not rule out that Assad’s forces may also have used chemical weapons. Washington has made such use a ‘red line’, the crossing of which it said would meet an active response.