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An apparent Israeli strike on a Syrian weapons plant in the north-west of the country that allegedly contained chemical weapons have raised fears of escalating tensions between the two nations or a new war between Israel and its long-time enemy Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite Lebanese militia allied with the Syrian regime.
According to the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the alleged strike on 7 September 2017 killed or injured at least seven Syrian military personnel. The group said the missiles targeted a vanguard camp, a short and medium-range missile depot and a scientific research facility housing ‘allied militiamen, of non-Syrian nationality’.
The United States previously accused the facility of producing chemical weapons. In April 2017, it sanctioned 271 of the facility’s employees, ordering US banks to seize their assets and forbidding American companies from conducting business with them.
The alleged strike came a day after the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report accusing the Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians in chemical weapons attacks, including a sarin attack in Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib area on 4 April 2017 that killed more than 80 people, mostly women and children. The report also said the regime has since continued to attack opposition held areas of Idlib, Hama and East Ghouta with weaponized chlorine.
Syrian officials responded to the alleged strike with heated language but have so far taken no steps to retaliate.
In a statement released via Syrian state media, the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces ‘warned against the dangerous repercussions of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region’.
Four days later, on 10 September, Syrian Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister Fayssal Mikdad said in an interview with the Lebanese news station al-Mayadeen that the alleged strike would not divert attention from the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Deir ez-Zor but threatened delayed retaliation. “Syria will never forget these attacks and the time will come when Israel will pay the price,” he said. “The last Syrian child will not forget these attacks and we will take measures to extract our rights and not allow anyone to violate the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Mikdad’s ministry sent letters to the United Nations Secretary General and chairman of the United Nations Security Council demanding that the Security Council ‘condemn the repeated Israeli aggressions on the country and take an immediate and decisive measure to halt them in accordance with its resolutions related to combating terrorism’.
Israel has not confirmed that it was behind the strike, which took place as a major military exercise was underway in northern Israel, modelling a potential war with Hezbollah.
Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he did not know who had attacked the plant in Syria, “but whoever it was did Israel an excellent service”. He added that he did not anticipate retaliation from Syria or its powerful ally, Russia. “The Russians, even if they think we did it, aren’t saying a word. There’s a hotline between our defence establishments and understandings that we won’t get in their way and they won’t get in ours.”
In a piece for the New York Times, Amos Yadlin, chief of Israeli military intelligence until 2010, wrote, ‘It seems Israel is broadening the scope of its action to prevent its key adversaries from producing or acquiring advanced weaponry.’ According to Yadlin, the strike makes clear to Iran and Syria that Israel is ready to attack in order to prevent the development of a long-term strategic threat.
In the days following the alleged strike, Israeli media reported that Russia had issued assurances that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to threaten Israel from Syria. Israel had been more than unhappy with a ceasefire deal brokered by the US and Russia in southern Syria because it did not address the presence of Hezbollah and Iran in the area. Israel considers this presents a threat to its security and, as such, unacceptable.
An unnamed senior Russian official told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Russia had urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah “not to respond and concentrate on the big picture”, adding that if Hezbollah and Iran “overstep their bounds in their involvement in Syria, we will suppress them”.
The alleged strike came almost exactly ten years after an attack on another suspected Syrian nuclear facility in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Israel was also believed to be behind that attack although it did not claim responsibility either.
At a news conference on the day of the alleged strike, US President Donald Trump said the US “would be extremely upset if [al-Assad] was using chemical weapons” but added that he had not heard reports that the Syrian regime was continuing to do so. “As far as Syria is concerned, we have very little to do with Syria other than killing IS. What we do is we kill IS,” he said.
Supporters of Israel said the alleged attack was necessary. In his New York Times article, Amos Yadlin wrote, ‘The facility that was hit produces chemical weapons, barrel bombs and a variety of other weapons that the [al-Assad] regime has used to massacre innocents. Destroying it could save countless lives.’ Israel is prepared to respond militarily to any retaliation, he continued, but warned against ‘being dragged into a war on the northern border’.
Analysts have speculated about the likelihood and timing of another war between Israel and Hezbollah. If such a war happens, it will likely be more devastating than the previous conflict in 2006 as Hezbollah has since built up its capabilities and become more enmeshed in the official Lebanese power structure. For its part, Israel has threatened to launch even more attacks than in 2006 on civilian targets and infrastructure. Damage to infrastructure at the time was estimated at $2.5 billion.