With everything else going on in the world, from killer hurricanes in the Caribbean to President Trump making deals with the Democrats to Hillary Clinton’s side-splitter of a new book, conservatives may not have realized that around the other side of the world, Israel unilaterally attacked a Syrian military base in the middle of the night using fighter jets that launched missiles from outside of Syrian airspace (over Lebanon, to be specific).
What was the reason for this unprovoked assault? The official narrative from Israel is that the base, known as Al-Tala’i, near the city of Masyaf, was the storage site for alleged chemical weapons used in the still-controversial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April. As readers may recall, that attack was the impetus for President Trump to hit a different Syrian airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in April (during which time no Syrians were killed or injured).
But as opposed to the U.S. attack, Israel did not give advance notice of this strike nor did it check in with its American ally to get so much as a go-ahead. This is likely because Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu has realized that in the wake of a military “de-escalation” agreement negotiated in Astana, Kazakhstan in July between Syria, the Syrian opposition, Russia, Turkey and Iran, the only country that’s willing to aggressively look out for Israel’s interests, for now, is Israel.
This is the gist of much of what Netanyahu communicated to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two met in the Russian city of Sochi two weeks ago. It was at this meeting that Netanyahu reportedly became “unhinged” over the fact that Iran — Israel’s longtime recalcitrant foe — now has a solid presence in Syria that the United States and Russia both seem to be unperturbedly tolerating. Furthermore, as Syria and the U.S. have nearly routed ISIS from all of its fixed settlements, Syria looks to be well on its way to winning the six-year-long war it’s had with that country’s well-funded opposition forces.
Meanwhile, Israel looks like its left “holding the bag” while its larger allies try to wash their hands of the costly, messy and very bloody conflict. Israel has even publicly said it would prefer to have ISIS on its borders than any allies of Iran (namely, Syria). But this is a statement made out of weakness, not strength; even American former CIA Director Mike Morell has said that Israel would happily covertly support al-Qaeda if it meant a stronger position against Iran.
Another problem for Israel is the ever-growing strength and sophistication of its longtime nemesis, terrorist organization Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel has been brazenly invading Syrian airspace to attack Hezbollah weapons convoys and personnel with impunity for the last six years. Some even say that the real target of this latest strike was a Hezbollah arms storehouse, rather than the Syrian military installation. From the size and spectacular fireballs of the resulting explosions, it’s certainly possible that the former was actually hit rather than the latter.
But for all its attacks, Israel has been no more successful at containing Hezbollah than it was in 2006 when it attempted an all-out effort to destroy it. That effort ended in miserable failure, not just from a military point of view, but also from an electronic and human intelligence standpoint. This failure made other Middle Eastern regimes as well as the U.S. sit up and take notice — a very small revolutionary movement had aggressively stood up to regional power Israel and had prevailed.
It was against this backdrop that the U.S. felt it had to take action against Hezbollah ally Syria in 2011. In concert with Europe, Israel and oil-wealthy Gulf states, the U.S. poured money and weapons into a war that saw American support go not only to al-Qaeda but also, later, to ISIS. The Americans offered equipment, bribes, sanctions against Syria and a massive propaganda campaign that the Western mainstream media still promotes here and there.
But like Hezbollah, Syria stood its ground and resisted and has now nearly won the war, against overwhelming odds. The Western- and Saudi-backed forces of Sunni Islam have been discredited and nearly defeated in the conflict. The six countries — Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — that comprise the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council, which was founded in 1981 to preserve hereditary Sunni/Wahhabist rule over the Arabian Peninsula, are now beset with internecine squabbles.
Israel would like to persuade Iraq to join forces with it and Saudi Arabia against Iran and the Shi’ites, but too many Iraqis know of Saudi and Israeli covert support for ISIS, which inflicted brutal savagery on Iraqi citizens over the last three years; instead, increasingly, Iraq is allying itself with Iran.
In stating that the Syrian military base was its target in this latest attack, Israel was hoping to draw a Syrian counterattack on its jets or its borders, a wish that was not granted immediately and has little hope of being fulfilled in the future. This is because Syrian leader Bashar Assad is too smart to let his country be drawn into a war with Israel when it’s already busy enough fighting a tenacious and persistent enemy. As New York’s Century Foundation think tank has stated, “Syria’s contemporary leaders seem to have adopted a simplified version of the “long breath strategy” of the former president — and father of Syria’s current leader — Hafez Assad. This strategy was named for Syria’s ability to draw a deep breath and weather short-term pain and setbacks in pursuit of a better deal [in the future].”
From an Israeli perspective, a high-placed source in that country’s security apparatus acknowledged that leadership in his country has underestimated Assad, saying, “It’s high time to admit that perhaps all our assessments were erroneous. The prevailing consensus of the last five years was that Syria would never return to its former state. We thought that however this turns out, the Syrian state as we knew it had passed from the world. But evidently, we were wrong; Syria is returning. That is clear now. It’s not about the quantity of territory, it’s about central rule. If nothing unexpected happens, in the near future, Assad will be declared the final, unequivocal winner of this war. Following that, the path to Syria’s rebuilding and reconstruction will be short.”
There are reports that during Netanyahu’s sojourn to Sochi, a senior Israeli official threatened that the Netanyahu government might dare to bomb Assad’s hilltop presidential palace in Damascus, which many observers took to be a sign that Netanyahu was extremely distraught over the continued Iranian presence in Assad’s nation. Russia’s Pravda news outlet wrote, “according to eyewitnesses of the open part of the talks, the Israeli prime minister was too emotional and at times even close to panic. He described a picture of the apocalypse to the Russian president that the world may see, if no efforts are taken to contain Iran, which, as Netanyahu believes, is determined to destroy Israel.” Netanyahu allegedly asked Putin for “guarantees” regarding the Iranians, but left the meeting empty-handed.
With a growing number of enemies surrounding it and the United States unwilling to commit more resources to a third major conflict (the other two being Afghanistan and North Korea), Israel is finding itself increasingly alone even as Netanyahu is facing a possible criminal indictment within his own country on corruption charges (his wife was recently indicted for unauthorized state expenditures).
Whether the U.S. will ultimately come to Israel’s aid vis-a-vis potential military action against Iran remains to be seen, but for now, Israel is progressively discovering itself to be between a geopolitical rock and a hard place.