Recent cross-border military actions between Israel and Syria, the first since 1982, have raised concerns in Lebanon and the United States over the potential for increased hostilities in the region. The current tensions came on the heels of a February 6 inspection visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to the Israel-Syria-Lebanon border area.
As reported in Al Monitor, “According to official reports from the Syrian army, that same night, Israeli aircraft attacked a target on the outskirts of Damascus. That same area, where a Syrian research facility involved in the “Precision Project” for missiles is located, had already been bombed in the past. Indeed, this site is considered by Israel to be a direct strategic threat.” Since the missiles were fired from Lebanon, some analysts opined that Israel was sending a message to Hezbollah as well as Syria.
While the Cabinet was in the north, it received briefings from senior military officials that focused primarily on Hezbollah’s increased capabilities in Lebanon and Syria. As the article phrased it, “In the past few weeks alone, the winds of war blowing across the region have turned into a veritable hurricane.”
It has not taken long for the situation to deteriorate. Despite a Lebanese government statement challenged Israel’s construction of a wall along the Blue Line, which demarcates the border with Lebanon, Israel retorted that it has every intention of moving ahead aggressively. Israel has made clear that if there is a third Lebanon war, “The damage to Lebanon will be enormous, with most of its national infrastructures in ruins and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties. Hezbollah will also suffer a resounding blow, though it is hard to imagine that it will be completely defeated and obliterated,” according to Al Monitor.
Within days of the Lebanese statement, Israel carried out major air strikes in Syria, including facilities that house Iranian and Russian military forces, brought about by the interception of an alleged Iranian drone over Israeli airspace. While Israel’s regular overflights over Lebanon’s territory are tolerated since Lebanon has no air defense system, the same is not true of Syria. When Israel destroyed the drone and attacked the command and control center in Syria, it engaged Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military and Israel lost an F-16 in the strike.
This loss increased tensions, leading to alarm bells going off in the region in advance of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit this week. “The events, including Israel’s direct engagement with Iranian forces, threatened to intensify the crisis in Syria and showed the extent to which the country [Syria] has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, bitter foes in the region,” noted the New York Times.
From the Israeli side, the warning is clear, “We are ready to exact a very heavy price from whoever acts against us,” said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, “but we are not seeking an escalation.” Spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus added, “Syria and Iran are playing with fire.”
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswomen said in a statement that “The United States is deeply concerned about today’s escalation of violence over Israel’s border, and “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.”
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation, as “civilians in the war-torn country [Syria] suffer through one of the most violent periods in nearly seven years of conflict. In a statement he said that “all concerned in Syria and the region have a responsibility and must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions.”
According to several sources quoted in The Washington Post, the recent strikes “could have serious consequences for the war in Syria – and for the region as a whole.” Israeli leaders and commentators mention three overlapping issues: the presence of Iranian forces including its surrogate Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the potential arming of Hezbollah and others with precision-guided missiles, and the continuing upgrading of Hezbollah forces across the border in Lebanon.
“If the conflict escalates, it could end up adding a dangerous angle to the ongoing Syrian conflict — and one that could wind up involving other powers in the region and beyond.An open conflict between Israel and Iranian-backed forces would add to the entanglements and chaos in Syria. It would also risk pulling neighboring Lebanon or other Arab states into a new war, too,” according to the Post article.
All of the recent regional escalation cloaked continuing domestic devastation as Syrian attacks continue on civilian facilities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, underlined the need for urgent international action to protect civilians caught up in “wave after wave” of deadly airstrikes. “The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in eastern Ghouta, were hit by airstrikes. “Even by Syria's atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments – and a cruel irony given that both have been declared 'de-escalation areas.”