According to the Assad regime, Israeli warplanes have violated Syrian airspace and bombed a scientific research facility. According to Western security sources, the attack was against a convoy of sophisticated heavy weapons destined for Lebanon and Hezbollah. Israel itself is saying nothing; nor, officially, is the US. For all the obfuscation and confusion, however, what is chillingly clear is the danger of Syria’s vicious civil war spilling over into a regional conflict.
The situation inside the country is dismaying enough. More than 60,000 people have been killed in the near two years since the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad began. Although the regime’s grip is weakening, the fight only gets bloodier; and as many as four million civilians have been displaced – many of whom are now starving, freezing and dying from disease.
No less alarming are the signs of strain in Syria’s highly combustible neighbourhood. Thousands of refugees continue to pour into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Meanwhile, the first of six Nato Patriot missile batteries is now in place on Turkey’s Syrian border, with the rest soon to follow, and Israel has moved some Iron Dome defence batteries up to Haifa in the north. Both are ostensibly defensive arrangements, but neither is a recipe for peace. Nor, indeed, are the ever-greater numbers of extremists drawn to the fighting in Syria, fuelling concerns over the fate of Assad’s chemical weapons.
Alone, Israel’s air strikes are unlikely to tip the balance. The Syrian regime is under too much pressure to retaliate. Hezbollah may not respond immediately either, given that the attack was not in Lebanese territory. And on the international stage, Russia – one of Damascus’ few remaining allies – has, thankfully, restricted its condemnations to diplomatic channels. Such observations are cold comfort, though. This week’s events not only emphasise again the fragile balance of power in the region; a convoy of weapons en route to Hezbollah – if that was, indeed, the case – is an explicit attempt to upset it. The outlook is far from encouraging.