U.N. peacekeepers monitor the Lebanese-Israeli border at a point overlooking an Israeli settlement, in southern Lebanon on Monday. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
An Israeli airstrike on a military research facility near Damascus, Syria, last weekend killed 42 Syrian soldiers, reported the Associated Press, and raised the specter of the Syrian conflict pulling in more regional players.
In general, Israel has had a “hands off” role in the Syrian conflict, but it also doesn’t want weapons to fall into the hands of those who might harm Israel, said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The strikes by Israel, which reportedly occurred Friday and Sunday, appeared to be targeting weapons that were stored in Syria but meant for use by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
There’s a risk of growing border instability and of weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands, which in Israel’s eyes is Hezbollah, said Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large for the Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live.
And in Syria’s eyes, Israel’s actions constitute a “declaration of war,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad told CNN.
“We dealt with this on several occasions, and we retaliated the way we wanted, and the retaliation was always painful to Israel, and they will suffer again,” he said.
In January, Israel struck a truck convoy within Syria that was carrying missiles or missile parts to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. PBS NewsHour senior correspondent reported from Jerusalem on the airstrike and tensions between Israel and Syria and Hezbollah:
In September 2007, Israeli jets also bombed a partially built nuclear reactor in Syria. Syria has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty but is able to construct nuclear facilities as long as they’re used for civilian energy and non-weaponry purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in May 2011 that the facility was “very likely” a nuclear reactor, according to the BBC.
The 2007 attack was more discrete, Israel denied it and Syria basically agreed to ignore it, said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. But last week’s strike shows the actions of others in the region, including Hezbollah and Iran, are becoming more overt and that Syria is becoming increasingly lawless, she said.
Israel also might be trying to send a signal to Iran that it could strike that country’s nuclear facilities, too, said Dunne.
It’s not clear how much coordination there was between Israel and the United States in last week’s airstrike, but it still raises the question of whether the United States would let Israel take the lead with Iran and its nuclear program, she added.
The airstrikes came as U.N. human rights investigators said Syrian rebels have used the nerve agent sarin in their fight against the government, Reuters reported. Rebels and the Syrian government have accused each other of using chemical weapons, which are banned under international law.
Carla Del Ponte, head of the commission, also said Sunday that the commission has found no evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical agents. But White House spokesman Jay Carney cast doubt on that assessment Monday afternoon, saying, “We are highly skeptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons. We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime. And that remains our position.”
We’ll have more analysis on Monday’s NewsHour. Additional reporting by Daniel Sagalyn.