Resonant Syria strike suggests coordinated US-Israel message to Russia and Iran
Overnight attack comes with Pompeo in the region, Netanyahu and Trump on the phone, Liberman in the US, and the US Army CENTCOM chief having visited without fanfare last week
Hours after a mysterious “earthquake” — 2. 6 on the Richter scale — registered on the devices of the European Mediterranean Seismological Center, the circumstances behind the series of explosions that shook Syria overnight Sunday-Monday are starting to become clear.
An increasing number of media organizations associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are hinting that Israel was responsible. According to a report in the Al Akhbar newspaper, identified with Hezbollah, bunker buster missiles, which do not explode on impact but rather deep in the ground, hit bases in the Hama and Aleppo areas. Hence the “earthquake.”
The base that was attacked in the Hama area belongs to the 47th Brigade of President Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army, but apparently there were many Shiites and/or Iranians in the area. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory (based in London) reported that 26 people were killed in this attack, Iranians among them. Another report spoke of 38 fatalities. Whatever the case, it is clear that the strike was highly unusual in several respects.
First and foremost was the sheer power of the attack. The pictures and the sounds, and the large number of casualties, point to an incident of larger scale than those to which we have become accustomed. We are not talking here about just another strike on another Hezbollah convoy, but rather what would appear to be a new step in what is now the almost-open warfare being waged between Iran and Israel in recent weeks on Syrian territory. The same player that earlier this month attacked the T-4 airbase, from which an Iranian attack drone was launched into Israel in February, apparently struck again overnight Sunday-Monday, taking the gloves off and moving into a new level of military confrontation.
Second, not only is the attacking force not rushing to take responsibility, but those who are being attacked are not hurrying to assign blame. That is to say, there may be hints regarding ostensible Israeli responsibility, but there has been no direct accusation — at least not at the time of writing.
Indeed, one newspaper associated with the Assad regime, Tishreen, has even claimed that the attack was carried out by US and UK forces using ballistic missiles fired from Jordan. This report would appear to be somewhat improbable, but the bottom line is that Damascus, Tehran and even Moscow would seem to be wary at this stage of issuing declarations that might require them to retaliate against Israel, or cause them to appear to be making empty threats in light of Iran’s repeated public promises after the last attack, on T-4, that retaliation against Israel would emphatically follow.
Third, the latest strike was carried out at a time when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting the region, and just a few hours after he held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two of them used the opportunity to issue no shortage of threats and promises to thwart Iran’s aggression and nuclear ambitions.
Late Sunday, news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has been meeting with his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. And less than a week ago, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.
All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington.
These developments are unfolding during a highly dramatic period in the region, with the US two weeks away from opening its embassy in Jerusalem. Of most specific relevance, however, is the fact that in less than two weeks the Trump administration will make its decision on whether or not to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.
In that light, the resonant strikes in Syria overnight will doubtless constitute considerable food for thought for Tehran, and indeed Moscow, regarding their next moves in Syria and maybe in other places as well.