Strike on Damascus sends strong message to Assad
TUNIS - Syrian state media reported two Israeli missiles striking at an unspecified target near the airport in Damascus. If confirmed, this latest strike in the heart of the capital could foreshadow a far greater confrontation as Damascus seeks to project its power into Syria’s rebel-held south-west.
According to the state news agency SANA, the missiles struck shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning in response to the regime’s ongoing bombardment of rebel position in Syria’s south-west.
Responding to reports of the strike, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR),told AFP that “the Israeli missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah near the airport.”
In keeping with past strikes, Israel has yet to confirm or deny responsibility for the attack, with a military spokesman saying only: "We do not comment on foreign reports."
Irrespective of the intended target, the possible Israeli strike, just after a June 18 strike on the Iraqi border, sends a strong message to the Syrian regime, which is preparing to launch land operations close to the Israeli and Jordanian border.
Observers of the Syrian conflict previously pointed to the ongoing shortfalls in Damascus’ manpower and have questioned its ability to project power into the south-west without the support of either Iran or its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
Recognising the risks of such a move, Russia brokered a deal whereby Iran and Hezbollah would withdraw their forces 40 kilometres from Israel’s border, an agreement the SOHR reported them honouring on June 21.
However, according to an earlier June 8 report by the Wall Street Journal, rebel forces in the south-west said that Hezbollah fighters were withdrawing from their positions in the area, only to return in Syrian army uniforms.
“It’s a camouflage,” Ahmad Azam, a commander with the rebel Salvation Army, a rebel group based in Quneitra, told the newspaper. “They are leaving…in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms.”
However, whether such a ruse would still be tenable in light of Israel’s apparent growing confidence is unclear. Speaking at a Cabinet meeting on June 16, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stressed that, as far as he was concerned, Tel Aviv’s sphere of influence extended to all of Syria, not just the region bordering its frontier. “Iran needs to withdraw from all of Syria,” he said.
“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,” Netanyahu said.
Twenty-four hours later, he is presumed to have put his words into action, allegedly launching strikes on Iraq’s Iranian-linked Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) units near Abu Kamal, close to the country’s border with Iraq, killing several pro-regime fighters and adding to the growing tally of confrontation between Iran, its auxiliaries and Israel.
The administration of US President Donald Trump, an unflagging supporter of Israel, appears to have allowed Tel Aviv a free hand to defend its interests throughout Syria. Likewise, despite reportedly providing air cover for Syrian troops, Russia is unlikely to view any broach of its agreement favourably.