Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Did Israel strike Syria following Assad’s chemical weapons attack?

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The world is awaiting a US response to Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians in a rebel holdout in eastern Ghouta on April 7 that killed around 70 people and injured hundreds. On April 9, US President Trump said at a cabinet meeting that he would make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours about whether to retaliate militarily to the attack. President Trump told reporters, "We're talking about humanity and it can't be allowed to happen." Horrifying images of men, women and children foaming at the mouth from what appears to be chemical weapons exposure have been circulated. The Assad regime and Russia predictably deny the use of chemical weapons.

According to numerous reports, the Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons despite agreeing to dispose of its chemical weapons in 2013, following international outrage over a large-scale chemical weapons attack on civilians that killed around 1500 people. Despite crossing US President Obama's "red line", instead of using American military force, Obama agreed to a Russian backed deal to dispose of the Syrian government's chemical weapons - but as I anticipated back in 2013, not all were removed.

Why would the Assad regime use chemical weapons now when its military victory over eastern Ghouta appeared all but assured? It appeared to reflect an arrogant audacity that the Syrian government can do whatever it likes, confident in the backing of its super power ally Russia, and its support from Iran and its Lebanese terrorist proxy Hezbollah.  Assad was also likely encouraged following news of US President Donald Trump's plans for the US to withdraw from Syria in the coming months now that ISIS in Syria has largely been defeated. Given the US plan to withdraw from Syria, Assad may have expected only a meek response to his use of chemical weapons. Moreover, there have been reports of numerous other chlorine chemical weapons attacks that received no military response from Western governments.

However, this latest chemical attack may have changed the game. A US response possibly backed by other Western powers is even more likely following Russia's veto of a UN Security Council resolution on April 11 that would have established a new inquiry to ascertain blame for the chemical weapons attack in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia is warning of repercussions if there is a US assault on Syria.

Australia has also condemned the chemical weapons attack, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop releasing the following statement:

"Any use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and UNSC Resolution 2118. We urge all parties involved in the continuing conflict in Syria, including Russia and Iran, to apply maximum pressure on the Syrian regime to fully halt any and all chemical weapons related activity."

Following the chemical weapons attacks on April 9 a Syrian airbase known as T-4 was targeted with airstrikes. Syria, Iran and Russia and the US have all identified Israel as the attacker, while Israeli officials have declined to comment as per their usual protocol. Russia claimed that two Israeli F-15 fighter jets fired eight missiles at the airbase, some of which they claim were shot down. The airstrikes are reported to have struck a section of the base under exclusive Iranian command where Iranian drones are deployed, and killed at least 14 people, including 7 Iranian military personnel. The Tasnim media outlet, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), specified that seven IRGC members were killed in the strike, including one high-ranking officer, Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who reportedly served in one of the group's drone units. The same unit was bombed in early February, after it was determined that it had dispatched the Iranian drone that infiltrated Israeli airspace and was shot down.

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman alluded to the strike on April 10, stating that Israel "will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Whatever the cost," and adding "Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that."

Israel has previously carried out a number of strikes inside Syria that have targeted the Assad regime and Iranian positions as well as Hezbollah. Israel has serious concerns for its security given that an Iranian presence in Syria is becoming entrenched near Israel's northern border. Iran has repeatedly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map", funds terror groups that target Israel including both Hamas and Hezbollah, and Israel believes that it is only a matter of time before they have nuclear weapons due to the ineffective nature of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror had this to say about Israel's likely motivation for the strike:

"It is clear that Israel is determined to continue undermining Iran's efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria and transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah. The location of Monday's strike, far from Lebanon, supports the assumption that it targeted Iranian infrastructure, but we also cannot dismiss the possibility that the Iranians tried to transfer equipment or weapons to Hezbollah via a remote base in an attempt to throw off Israel's suspicions and undermine its ability to monitor the process. Israel's determination is clear. It will not allow Iran to tighten its grip on Syria, even if it results in a security escalation that will come with a potentially high price."

Amidror also expressed some concern about the Russian reaction to the strike:

"Russia's decision to reveal that it was the Israeli Air Force that struck the T4 air base in Syria's Homs province early Monday came as somewhat of a surprise.
One has to wonder what pushed Moscow to do so, as it ostensibly has no interest in fueling tensions between Israel and Syria. Moreover, while ambiguity allows Syrian President Bashar Assad to contain the situation and save face, this type of revelation paints Assad - and his Iranian patrons - into a corner from which they would have to mount a potentially harsh response."

While President Trump is determined to "fix or nix" the Iran nuclear deal, he appears less concerned about Iran's military presence in Syria, and has stated his intention for the US to withdraw from Syria in the coming months given that ISIS has largely been defeated. Israel is apprehensive that a US withdrawal from Syria would leave the future of Syria in the hands of Iran, Russia and Turkey - all of whom met at a summit last week to discuss plans for Syria. Israel has implored the US to remain in Syria to have a stake in Syria's future and prevent Iran's entrenchment, which resulted in a "tense" phone conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump on April 4.

This latest airstrike may have been a message to both the US and Russia, who to date appear to have ignored Israel's concerns about Iranian entrenchment close to Israel's northern border. While for some time Israel had relied on Russia to keep the "peace" between Israel and Iran on the Syrian border, it appears clear from the Iranian build up that this strategy is no longer working. While Israel previously had a process of informing Russia of its planned airstrikes in Syria, it has been reported that Russia was furious at not being informed about the latest strikes, while the US was told in advance.

Commentating on the Iranian military presence in Syria and its threat to Israel, Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute writes in the Daily Beast:

"To suggest the IRGC has acquired in recent years a position of Syrian strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel would be an understatement. With at least 10 shared or dedicated military bases and more than 40 permanent military positions across the country, the IRGC commands well over 120,000 militiamen, at least 25,000 of whom are non-Syrians. As Iran and its many proxies have frequently made clear, this sizeable Syria-based force has only one long-term adversary in mind: Israel, and specifically its destruction as a nation state.
Beyond facilities and men-at-arms, Iran is now aggressively expanding from the asymmetric to the conventional, operating a fleet of sophisticated drones and an array of rockets and short-range ballistic missiles. The IRGC is also said to be ferrying in more precision missile technology-with munitions targetable to 10- to 20-meter accuracy-and constructing large-scale facilities for assembling sophisticated ballistic missiles flown into Syria directly from Iran, much like the IRGC does with Yemen's Houthis. IRGC specialists and Hezbollah are also rumored to be cooperating with the Syrian government's renewed research into chemical weapons-reportedly assisted by North Korean scientists-as well as new methods of delivering chemicals in short-range, tactical attacks."

Regarding how the conflict between Iran and Israel may unfold, Lister writes:

"The fact remains that if a conflict were to break out along the Golan, the Iranian proxy network would almost certainly capture some amount of Israeli territory, albeit that probably would be temporary. By itself, such an eventuality would catalyze a political crisis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Even worse is the rocket and missile threat and the ease with which thousands of projectiles could quickly overwhelm Israel's Iron Dome, David's Sling and Arrow 2 and 3 defense systems, leaving the country's small and vulnerable critical infrastructure open to attack and possible destruction by precision-guided missiles. For example, a mere 12 electricity plants provide for all of Israel's needs, and all currently sit in range of Iran-provided missiles in Syria and Lebanon."

Israel's military is now on high alert with Iran threatening to avenge the airstrike on the Syrian air base. On April 10, a top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, threatened Israel and said, "The crimes will not remain unanswered," according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Iran may seek to strike at Israel via the Golan Heights using Hezbollah and Shi'ite proxies, or it could even lead to Hezbollah attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets outside the region. Hezbollah has been responsible for a number of bombings on Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.

The latest escalations may pull the US back into Syria, despite the President's stated preference to withdraw. Last April President Trump also struck a Syrian airbase in response to the killing of civilians in a reported sarin gas attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun, which was attributed to the Assad regime. But clearly the US response failed to act as deterrence as there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons attacks since the US strike, which have been attributed to the Assad regime.

If the US orders limited strikes against the Assad regime as punishment for its use of chemical weapons, but still decides to withdraw its US presence from Syria, Assad's victory in Syria (and Iran's) is likely assured. For now the world awaits a potential US response, and whether the US decides to act or not, and what that action will be, will have a lasting impact on both Syria's future and the Israel/Iran conflict.

Sharyn Mittelman



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