There has long been the risk that Syria’s civil war would spread into neighbouring countries and, from there, engulf the region as a whole. This alarming prospect has come that bit closer after Israel was blamed by Syria for conducting two sets of air strikes on successive days. The most destructive attack hit what was described as a scientific research centre in the north-western suburbs of Damascus. In an ominous response, the Syrian authorities said the attacks amounted to a declaration of war.
Israel, as is its practice, has not directly acknowledged responsibility, but has not denied it either, leaving US officials to confirm that Israeli planes had entered Syrian airspace and Israeli military sources to say that they would do everything to prevent the transfer of Iranian-made missiles to Lebanon. Both the latest strikes, and an earlier one in January, were believed to have targeted convoys or stockpiles of weapons destined for Hezbollah.
A small consolation is that, for all the Syrian regime’s verbal huffing and puffing, it does not appear ready to retaliate – whether because it understands the risks of escalating the conflict or because it has been weakened to the point that it does not possess the capability. For Israel’s part, as long as it restricts itself to striking military targets, it can legitimately claim it is acting in self-defence. If more heavy Iranian weapons reached Hezbollah in Lebanon, its security would be severely compromised.
That said, however, the dangers inherent in developments in Syria are increasing all the time. A senior UN investigator, Carla del Ponte, said yesterday that there were strong suspicions, “though not yet incontrovertible proof”, that anti-government forces had used the nerve gas sarin. If recent reports of pro-government forces using the same nerve gas are true, that suggests the regime has lost control of at least some of its chemical weapons stocks.
And there is a very fine line between an Israeli air attack inside Syria designed to prevent Iranian weapons reaching Hezbollah – which Israel can justify on grounds of national security – and an Israeli air attack on a target in Syria which is designed to affect the course of the civil war, capitalise on Syria’s weakness, or extract some unilateral territorial advantage. In striking inside Syria, Israel is playing with fire in every possible sense. As the strongest military power in the region, it has a responsibility to show restraint.