5 May 2013

An act of war from Israel – but why now?

It’s been a long time coming, and it may in fact be that the Israeli airstrikes of the past two days are not the first direct action Israel has taken against Syria outside the Golan Heights.

What’s new is that neither Jerusalem nor Damascus can deny what’s going on any longer.

Read more: Israel ‘hits Syria again’

People I’ve spoken to in the Syrian capital are calling today’s blasts by far the biggest they’ve seen in more than two years of war – though fighting in and around the capital has not gone on quite that long as yet.

Huge explosions as a military training installation is hit, with presumably several secondary blasts caused by various ordnance detonating on the ground – that being the idea, if you take what Israel says at face value.

Syria calls it a “declaration of war” by Israel – though both countries remain technically at war anyhow. The Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad says Syria will respond in its own way at a time of its choosing.

So it is undoubtedly a major international escalation in the civil (but already quite internationalized) war, Damascus again pointing the finger at Islamic “terrorists” and adding this time that Israel is in cahoots with them. Yes – it stretches plausibility somewhat.

But what is really interesting is the timing. For these attacks by Israel come after a significant few weeks in which – in the central areas of the country, President Assad’s forces have made some notable strategic gains against the various rebel forces.

Alongside that, fighters from Hezbollah, coming in from Lebanon in the west to these central areas of fighting, have made a real impact on the ground.

It appears Israel has noted that and – under the guise of wishing to prevent the flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah – has decided to act unilaterally.

Clearly there will be a degree of US greenlighting of all this – or at least enough for Israel to calculate that the dangerous gamble is worthwhile. But as I say, Israel was watching events closely on the ground and did not like one bit what they are showing.

On April 24th for instance, the Syrian Army seized Otaiba, which is just east of Damascus, after the usual sustained barrage. This punched a hole in the rebel supply lines via which they had been taking much of their fight to the northern, eastern and southern areas around the capital.

Across Damascus, other gains too: rebels more or less now pushed out to the far side of the city ring-road zone in most areas. This again is a significant reversal of fortunes on the ground.

Just two days later the army took their fight to Jobar, a key northeastern suburb of Damascus and one of the few areas in rebel hands inside the ring-road zone.

If they can push the rebels from here then almost all of the gains the rebel forces have made around the Damascus suburbs will have been neutralised. As ever, the key word is “if”…

Gains too in the central city of Homs. Rebel propagandists like to pretend this entire city has been under siege by the army. That is not true now. Never has been true.

The central area though, does remain under siege as it has for months and the civilian cost of this has been as brutal as in so many other areas.

But on balance, territorially, it is the army not the rebels who are gaining ground here.

Again, the Israelis have been watching this carefully. Not least because the Hezbollah influence in the fighting in areas particularly to the southwest of Homs – towards the Lebanese border, has been significant.

True, the rebel forces continue to gain ground in the north of the city and in the far south around Daraa – the cradle of the revolution.

But this is the strategic truth of it on the ground which Israel has noted carefully. It is this picture which has moved them to act and to bomb Syria in what, indisupatably, is an act of war by anybody’s standards of definition.

Tweets by @alextomo