Tel Aviv — The reports coming from a district near the Syrian city of Maysaf sounded like a familiar tune from the Syrian civil war over the last six years.
Once again, another mysterious attack inside of Syria. Once again, foreign and domestic speculation that Israel was responsible. Once again, official Israeli silence.
But very quickly, the strike set off alarm bells and analysts and experts began signaling that this particular attack was different.
For the last few years, Israel has targeted convoys in Syria bound for Lebanon with missiles and launchers — hardware that Israel fears could erode its advantage on the battlefield and in the air against Hezbollah.
But the target near Maysaf was actually a Syrian research center believed to be part of the local infrastructure for the manufacture of chemical weapons.
“This is a very unique attack,” said Eran Zinger, Israel Radio’s Arab affairs correspondent, who has been reporting on the Syrian civil war for the last six years.
“We are not dealing with another convoy of missiles headed from Syria to Lebanon. We are dealing with a weapons factory itself. … You don’t produce sandwiches in these facilities,” he said.
Within hours, the Syrian government accused Israel of being responsible for the attack, spurring concern that Damascus might decide to retaliate and set off a cycle of escalation. Zinger speculated that even though the facility appeared to be a Syrian government target, the Iranians or Hezbollah were somehow involved in the activities taking place there.
The strike, many experts believe, seemed to signal a new Israeli posture toward its northern neighbor at a time when the war there has reached a strategic inflection point. With the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Assad regime has continued to consolidate control and the civil war appears headed toward a conclusion.
Not only is Israel adjusting to the reality that Bashar Assad will remain in power, but Jerusalem is also worried that Syria will become open ground for Iranian and Hezbollah military activity. Complicating matters is that Russia’s two-year presence in Syria has severely constrained Israel’s freedom of action. Though the two countries have managed to avoid a clash, whenever Israel acts, it must take into consideration whether it will upset the détente with Moscow.
But last week’s attack on the research facility seemed to signal a more aggressive stance toward Syria as the strategic environment tips in favor of Israel’s archrival, Iran, and its Shiite ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Joel Parker, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies, said that hitting a research facility deep inside Syria is a signal by Israel to its rivals.
“Israel sees that the Syrian regime is consolidating a victory, and the bridge between Beirut-Damascus-Tehran axis has completely opened up,” Parker said. “When Israel attacks, it sends a message: ‘Don’t forget that we’re here and we’re not afraid of you.’ Israel feels it needs to send a message that it’s still relevant.”
Israel’s overarching policy during the civil war has been to avoid becoming dragged into the fray. When Israel has intervened, its attacks have been viewed as pinpoint defensive strikes. In addition to the preemptive strikes on Hezbollah weapon convoys in Syria, Israel carries out tit-for-tat retaliations when there’s been civil war spillover into the Golan Heights.
However, the strike from last week seemed more like an offensive action, said Parker. “It’s crossing over into a proactive realm as if to say, ‘We are not just defending ourselves,’” he said.
The attack came at a time of heightened sensitivity: Israel’s military carried out one of its largest-ever exercises along the northern border during the same week. The exercise was meant to test troops’ preparedness for a cross-border incursion by Hezbollah from Lebanon targeting one of Israel’s border hamlets. It also raised questions about whether it could trigger jitters and an unwanted escalation.
“The IDF does not hide the fact that it is preparing for war in Lebanon,” wrote Udi Dekel and Assaf Orion in a policy paper published in July by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Despite the tensions up north, Prime Minister Netanyahu departed on Sunday for a several-country swing through South and Central America.
Dubbed a “historic” visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu made stops in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. The aim of the visit is to demonstrate Israel’s diplomatic and economic sway despite its isolation over Jewish settlements and the Palestinians. After Latin America, the prime minister will visit New York for the U.N. General Assembly and is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Sept. 17.
Netanyahu’s speech will no doubt touch on Iran and its growing influence in the region. Though Hezbollah has suffered thousands of casualties from its involvement in the Syrian civil war in recent years and unable to handle a second front with Israel, the Shiite militia has stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets and gained valuable battlefield experience in Syria.
As the civil war winds down, the Iranian proxy may turn its focus back to the Jewish state. Meanwhile, some fear that as memories fade of the destruction from the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, that Lebanese group will be less deterred from launching an attack against Israel.
The exercise “reflects the thinking that after 10 years of quiet, things may deteriorate, and we have to get ready to be involved,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “Conditions are changing that may make it easier for [Hezbollah] to operate. The war is going to an end.”
The notion that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance has prevailed in the civil war combined with the military presence of Russia in Syria has changed Israel’s calculations regarding its cross-border actions, Eiran said. In the case of Moscow, the presence of the Russian military marks the first time in more than two decades that Israel doesn’t have total freedom of action in the skies over Syria.
On the one hand, Russia serves as a patron of Israel’s archrivals, but, at the same time, Netanyahu and Israeli military chiefs have engaged President Vladimir Putin in a dialogue about Syria. Israel and Russia could be considered “frenemies,” said political science Professor Eiran.
Either way, the strike from last week is part of a policy that will probably evolve as the war winds down in Syria, he said.
“It’s part of establishing the rules of the game [in Syria] — it’s establishing what we can do,” he said. “We are still in the process of shaping the response.”