(April 12, 2018 / JNS) It took two F-15 Israeli fighter jets—according to foreign sources, though Israel has remained silent—firing eight missiles before dawn to let Syrian President Bashar Assad, the butcher, know that he cannot simply massacre children without punishment.
At first, the international community believed that it was America that had carried out the aerial strike, given President Donald Trump’s comments in the aftermath of the Syrian regime’s chemical attack in Douma. Yet, just days before, Trump hastily announced that the United States would soon leave Syria to its own fate.
Next, it was suggested that France was the country that had attacked. But while the United Nations and the European Union made statements expressing their utter condemnation for the use of chemical weapons—and while we all saw the images on our television screens of those tiny children suffering from the toxic gas that in many cases caused their deaths—it became clear that neither France nor America had acted.
Instead, the valiant gesture was probably carried out by Israel single-handedly, according to foreign sources—out of necessity, but also by choice.
Israel’s strike on the Iranian-controlled T-4 air base outside Damascus was not motivated only because Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stated after the latest chemical massacre that “what is happening in Syria is the genocide of women and children. As Jews who have experienced genocide, we have a moral obligation not to keep quiet and to try and stop this massacre.”
Rabbi Yosef’s statement is an important one, as a spiritual representative of a people who experienced the unbelievable slaughter of millions of innocents during the Holocaust, many by chemical weapons. The Jewish people honored those perished at the hands of a cruel and inhumane tyrant this week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Israel and around the world.
Rather, Israel was forced to act because of the wider geopolitical changes that have taken place in Syria, which pose a grave threat to Israel’s security, and violate all the moral and strategic red lines that the Jewish state can allow.
Israel has already attacked Syria several times since 2007, when it destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction. Israel struck against the T-4 air base two months ago after a sophisticated Iranian drone violated Israeli airspace. The drone could have contained a camera, a bomb or even nerve gas ready for use. This time, seven Iranians were killed by Israel’s latest strike, along with Syrians on the air base.
Iran exerts its power over Syria through intensive military support and the delivery of advanced weapons. The airbase had become Iran’s major transfer point to distribute Iranian-made weapons to Iran’s terror proxy group Hezbollah, along Israel’s border in southern Lebanon, as well as new bases around the Golan Heights.
The Iranians are being protected by Russia, which represents an ironclad shield to behave as they wish in Syria. The Iranians view Syria as an indispensable base for threatening Israel and expanding their hegemonic presence throughout the Middle East—first through Iraq and now also in Yemen.
Assad’s massacres on a rebel stronghold don’t disturb the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made Syria part and parcel of his renewed supremacy as the world superpower in the Middle East, which is nothing short of a victory over the United States, especially after former President Barack Obama weakly failed to enforce his solemn red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Israel’s latest airstrike on Syria, however, is different from the dozens of times in which Israel has undertaken strikes in reaction to violations of its security. This time, the stakes are much higher. Russia, which has never reacted to any of the previous Israeli strikes, is suddenly forced to respond, with its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling Israel’s action “a dangerous development.”
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has enjoyed a strong relationship with Putin, the strength of these ties may have its limits. Continuing to act in Syria may at some point lead Israel into a direct confrontation with Russia. Russian planes based in Syria could respond by returning fire. While Russia doesn’t seem to seek direct confrontation with Israel, it has clearly chosen Iran and Turkey as the primary members of its new Middle East axis.
Russia’s choice of partners is not being challenged by the United States, but rather by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has bravely and correctly called Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the “new Hitler of the Middle East.”
Just a few years ago, nobody would have imagined, but today Israel’s key allies include the Sunni Muslims of Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states. And now, President Trump is rethinking his hasty announcement of a few days to withdrawal from Syria.
As Israel continues to react to its moral and strategic red lines being definitively crossed, the situation is clearly starting to heat up.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.