A senior Israeli military officer dismissed the notion that America’s attack on a Syrian airfield earlier this month represented a dramatic shift in the country’s civil war, during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
On April 7, the US military fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian military’s Shayrat air base, in response to a sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhoun in the country’s Idlib province, which killed at least 87 people. The move was the first direct confrontation between American and Syrian forces after six years of civil war, but the IDF official said it was not a watershed moment in the conflict.
“The American attack wasn’t a strategic turning point, but rather another development in the fighting,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official repeated the Israeli assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad personally approved the chemical attack
“It’s hard for me to believe that he didn’t know about it,” the officer said.
According to the officer, the 1,200 tons of chemical weapons once in Assad’s possession have mostly been destroyed or removed, leaving him with just a few tons in his arsenal.
“The sarin attack is proof of Assad’s frustration and great desperation, and of the fact that no one is interested in conducting ground maneuvers in Syria — not Hezbollah, not the Russians and not the Iranians,” he said.
Speaking generally about the war in Syria, the official said that Iran, which once enjoyed “hegemony” in the country, lost its control when Russia brought in its troops in 2015.
“I don’t see how a decisive end or agreement in Syria can be reached. The only solution possible could be the creation of a federation or a confederation based on ethnicity, like in the Balkans,” he said.
The officer said Israel was working with the United Nations to bring back more peacekeepers to the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which operates on the Israeli-Syrian border to uphold a ceasefire reached after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
After the UN force came under attack in 2013 and 2014, the peacekeepers abandoned their base, leaving a vacuum that was occupied by Syrian rebels, including members of the Islamic State’s Golan Heights affiliate.
Around 120 UNDOF soldiers returned to the area last year, and the senior IDF officer said Israel was encouraging the UN to bring back more.
“In our eyes, there is importance in fulfilling the ceasefire agreement from 1974. Bringing back UNDOF to the Golan is a goal we set,” he said.
Turning his attention to the Gaza Strip, the officer said that Iran is currently sending between $60-70 million to Hamas each year, which the terror group uses to build up its military capabilities.
The officer denied that Israel’s construction of a security barrier around the Gaza Strip, which includes an underground component aimed at preventing terror tunnels from penetrating Israel, would lead to an escalation with Hamas this summer.
However, he noted, the recent election of Yahya Sinwar, who is seen as radical even within the organization, to lead Hamas in the Gaza Strip “created a reality that erased the distinction between the civilian leadership and military leadership” of the terror group.