Air strike on Iraqi border signals growing risks of Syrian conflict
TUNIS - An unclaimed air strike on a Syrian town near the Iraqi border opened a new chapter in the country’s intractable civil war.
Syrian state news on June 18 cited a military source as saying that coalition aircraft had attacked one of its positions in al-Harra, a settlement 3km from Abu Kamal and close to the Iraqi border.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said the attack killed about 52 pro-regime fighters, including an estimated 20 members of the Iraqi Al-Hashed al-Shaabi military alliance, a paramilitary force understood to be aligned with Iran.
Damascus and Baghdad accused the US-led coalition of having carried out the strike but Washington denied responsibility. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one US official told Agence France-Presse: “We have reasons to believe it was an Israeli strike.”
In keeping with its standing policies, Israel neither confirmed nor denied that it undertook the action.
If correct, however, an Israeli strike so far from its border would send a clear message to Beirut, Damascus and Tehran that wherever pro-regime forces of Iran and its auxiliaries operate in Syria, they could be attacked.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu indicated as much 24 hours before the strike, telling a cabinet meeting: “Iran needs to withdraw from all of Syria.”
“We will take action — and are already taking action — against efforts to establish a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria both close to the border and deep inside Syria,” he said.
Israeli confidence in carrying through on that threat appears high. “To date, Israel has largely concentrated on Iran’s presence in the Syria’s southern region,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Centre for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, “but if reports are accurate that Israel is responsible for this recent attack on the Iraqi border, that would be a significant escalation and a signal from [the Israelis] that they consider all of Syria fair game.”
With Hezbollah and Iran having invested heavily in Syria, Tel Aviv’s unstoppable force appears destined to meet Tehran’s immovable object. “Iran views its presence in Syria as a critical deterrent and would be unlikely to give up its position there without a fight.” Kaye said. “Hezbollah also sees value in a Syrian presence that serves as a second front against Israel but has to balance that with its political goals in Lebanon.”
Emboldened by the seemingly unflagging support of the Trump administration and possibly Russia, Israel’s confidence to strike in Syria seems to be increasing.
“The Israelis have presented a price tag to Qassem Soleimani, (commander of Iran’s al-Quds force, which is responsible for the country’s external operations),” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security said by phone. “They have his network in their crosshairs and they’ve shown themselves ready to strike whenever and wherever they like.
“We don’t know exactly what the death toll at al-Harra was but it’s pretty clear that this was a mass-casualty event. Similar strikes are eventually going to degrade Iran and Hezbollah’s network pretty significantly. The message from Netanyahu is clear: We are going to counter you and we are going to do so by massacre.”
Israel’s willingness to strike at any perceived threat in Syria appears to be a fact. While the strike at al-Harra may have occurred far from Israel’s border with Syria, the Assad regime’s long-anticipated advance into Daraa and south-western Syria would put its under-resourced and overstretched forces almost directly at Israel’s door. Whether, after the Abu Kamal strike, Damascus is willing to gamble on doing so with the covert support of its Iranian allies, as has been speculated, is likely to be a subject of debate.