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West lends tacit support as Israel stays mum on Syria strikes

China protests breach of Syrian sovereignty, Russia fears regional destabilization, and Turkey reserves judgement

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An image from the site in western Syria allegedly targeted by Israel, May 5. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
An image from the site in western Syria allegedly targeted by Israel, May 5. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Commenting on reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Western leaders have carefully expressed understanding for Jerusalem’s security concerns while cautioning that such attacks could further inflame an already volatile region.

Israeli officials continued to decline to comment on reports of two raids aimed at weapons convoys in Syria over the weekend, but most Arab states in the region, as well as Iran and the Arab League, slammed Israel’s alleged attacks and threatened retaliation, and the United Nations called on all parties to act responsibly to avoid further escalation.

“Obviously it’s something that one can understand, but at the same time, it’s a risk,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday about the alleged Israeli airstrikes, according to AFP. “If the conflict extends to neighboring countries, it would be a turning point in its nature.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is scheduled to visit Israel later this month, signaled understanding for Israel’s action but added that he is waiting for more information about the alleged strike before he can make a real assessment.

Laurent Fabius (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Laurent Fabius (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“All countries have to look after their own national security, of course, and are able to take actions to protect their own national security,” Hague told UK media on Sunday. “Israel will act to protect its national security, and we do have to respect that.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has so far not explicitly commented on the issue. During a speech Monday at a meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest, he reiterated that “Israel has the legitimate right to defend itself,” but did not mention the alleged airstrikes in Syria.

UN Security Council members China and Russia, meanwhile, warned that the actions could escalate tensions in the volatile region.

“We oppose the use of military force and believe any country’s sovereignty should be respected,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, on the day of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival for a five-day visit in the country. The statement did not specifically name Israel as the attacker.

“China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” Hua said.

A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was analyzing reports of the Israeli attacks, adding that “the further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilization of the so far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border.”

“The internationalization of the extremely dangerous and destructive internal conflict in Syria must not be permitted,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevic said, calling for “decisive efforts aimed at shifting the events in Syria into a peaceful channel.”

Turkey has also yet to comment on this weekend’s events. Last time Israel allegedly struck in Syria, on January 30, reportedly destroying an advanced conventional weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, it took Ankara three days to respond.

Then, Turkey’s foreign minister lambasted the country’s embattled President Basher Assad for not responding in force to the strike. “Why didn’t Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?” Ahmet Davutoglu asked reporters after the blast, which according to some reports also leveled a chemical weapons research and production center in Jamraya, northwest of Damascus, “Syria must do what a country under attack has to do,” he said, adding that Ankara would not stand by idly as Israel attacks a Muslim country.

Since then, of course, a lot has happened in Turkish-Israeli relations, with the two sides agreeing to restore full diplomatic ties. On Monday, a team of Turkish negotiators was in Israel to iron out the details of the rapprochement.

Ban Ki-moon: ‘Act responsibly to prevent escalation’

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday expressed “grave concern” over reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The UN does not have details of the reported incidents, nor can it independently verify what occurred, Ban’s spokesman said.

Yet, Ban called “on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict,” his spokesman added. “The secretary-general urges respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries in the region, and adherence to all relevant Security Council resolutions.”

On Saturday, US President Barack Obama said he won’t comment on the alleged Israeli airstrike but allowed that Israel has the right to defend itself. “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” he said.

Much of the Arab world was up in arms about the raids. Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned Sunday that the airstrikes constituted an Israeli “declaration of war.” The Syrian cabinet said in a statement that Israel’s alleged attacks “opened the door to all possibilities,” and that it reserved its right “to protect the homeland, the state and the people against any internal or external aggression by all means.”

President Michel Sleiman of Lebanon, the country whose airspace the Israeli jets reportedly violated in carrying out the attacks, compared the alleged attacks with Israeli actions against Lebanon in the past.

“This act is not unusual for a mutual enemy whose policy is based on aggression that takes advantage of the circumstances Syria is going through to carry out its aggression just as it used to do in Lebanon during its days of crisis,” said Sleiman, according to a translation by the Lebanese news site The Daily Star.

Egypt also condemned the alleged attacks, saying it considered them “a violation against international principles and laws.” Israel’s “aggressions,” the Egyptian president’s office said in a statement, were “obvious to the whole world.”

“Egypt calls on all states to take responsibility in confronting recurrent Israeli transgressions and in maintaining international peace and security,” the statement said.

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