Enter Israel

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Israeli soldiers at an observation point on Mount Bental in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights May 5. Syria is to the east of the mountain and Damascus is just 60 km away. Photo: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

A shell casing lies on the road after an Israeli air strike in Jamraya near Damascus on May 5. Photo: REUTERS/al manar tv/handout

A picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency on May 5 showing the damage caused by the Israeli strike. Photo: AFP

A group of rebel fighters who are in conflict with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, on May 5. Photo: REUTERS

At an Independence Day rally in the Druze village of Buqata on the Golan Heights on April 17, a flag with the picture of Assad. Photo: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

Israel attacks Syria’s armed forces in Damascus, openly involving itself in the neighbouring country’s domestic politics, even as the West uses the bogey of chemical weapons to threaten Syria.

WHEN the Syrian Army made steady military gains against the motley group of rebels supported by the West and its allies, allegations that the government side was using chemical weapons against the civilian population resurfaced. As that allegation failed to get international traction, Israel has now stepped in to openly prop up the beleaguered rebel forces.

On May 6, the United Nations’ top human rights investigator, Carla del Ponte, in an interview to a European television station, substantiated allegations by the Syrian government that it was the rebel side which had used chemical weapons. She asserted that there was use of sarin gas “on the part of the opposition, not by the government”. But the United States State Department insisted that chemical weapons were used only by the government forces.

It is an established fact that most of the fighting and the acts of terror that have been occurring in Syria have been conducted under the auspices of Al Nusra, a jehadist front associated with Al Qaeda. (The leadership of the militia announced recently that it had formally merged with Al Qaeda.) The international community is witnessing the strange spectacle of a de facto alliance between the West and Al Qaeda-affiliated forces in Syria while Al Qaeda and its allies are being hunted down by American drones in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

In a coordinated air and missile attack on May 5, Israel targeted an Army base outside Damascus. According to reports emerging from Damascus, the Israeli air strikes targeted the 104th and 105th Brigades of the Syrian Republican Guards. There are unconfirmed reports that up to 300 Syrian soldiers may have perished in the attacks. Israeli officials have maintained off the record that their main target was a shipment of Iranian missiles meant for the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon. They claim that the target they hit was near the Damascus airport, but there was a huge explosion on the outskirts of the capital, near Mount Qasioun. Rebel groups tried to use the confusion caused by the Israeli attacks to regroup and attack the capital city. Their attempts were, however, foiled.

With this act, Israel seems to have decisively entered into the domestic political arena of Syria on the side of “jehadists” and “taqfiri” (Sunni extremists) groups in the ongoing efforts of the West to effect a regime change in Syria. “The new Israeli attacks are an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups that have been reeling from the strikes by our noble army,” a Syrian government statement said. It said the attacks were a “flagrant violation” of international law that had made the region a “more dangerous” place. Israeli officials continue to claim that their increasing military involvement in the Syrian conflict is only aimed at curtailing the flow of weapons to Hizbollah. Egypt issued a strong statement condemning the Israeli aggression. The Arab League, which has suspended Syria, had no other option but to criticise the Israeli action.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubie, speaking to the media after the May 5 attack, warned that the Israeli air raids “open the door to all possibilities”. He emphasised that it was the government’s bounden duty “to protect the state from any foreign or domestic attack through all available means”. The Syrian government, preoccupied with the internal conflict, has not yet reacted militarily to the acts of aggression by Israel, which have escalated since the beginning of the year. Retaliatory strikes by Syria could plunge the entire region into turmoil. The Lebanese Hizbollah and Iran would no doubt be drawn into the conflict.

Perhaps this is the scenario that the policymakers in Israel and the U.S. desire. The Israeli air attacks have increased dramatically after the recent visits of U.S. President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to Tel Aviv. Israel has a large stock of chemical weapons. Besides, it possesses the biggest undeclared nuclear arsenal in the region. But that has not been a concern to the West. In late April, Egypt walked out of the nuclear disarmament talks held in Geneva claiming that the international community was not serious about its stated goal of creating a nuclear-free West Asia. The Egyptian delegation gave the instance of Israel and pointed to its reluctance to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

In late April, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that the “externally funded groups” doing the fighting inside Syria, had received “several hard blows recently”. Syrian diplomats told Frontline that the rebels now controlled only a swathe of territory bordering Turkey and patches of land near the borders with Jordan and Lebanon. Parts of Homs and Deraa, which had fallen into the hands of the rebels, is now firmly in the hands of the government. Assad told visiting journalists in Damascus that more than 15,000 people were able to return to their homes in Homs, Syria’s third biggest city, which bore the brunt of the conflict since it began three years ago. Assad said his government was committed to the Geneva agreement, reached last year, which called for an end to the fighting and a resumption of talks. Assad revealed that efforts were under way to seal the long borders the country shares with Turkey and Iraq, through which weapons are being smuggled into Syria.

“Closing the Syrian borders to weapons and smugglers could resolve the issue in two weeks, since the sources of money and arms will be destroyed,” Assad insisted.

Chemical weapons ploy

It was at this juncture that the West came up with the ploy of “chemical weapons”. In late April, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons by Syria, if proven, would be a “red line” that could be a “game changer” and could lead to open U.S. military intervention. He, however, admitted that there was no clinching evidence to prove that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian conflict. In fact, it was the Syrian government that had approached the U.N. to inquire into the charges that the rebels had used chemical weapons against civilians in the Khan al Assad area of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city. The attack in March, in an area under government control, had claimed many lives. The Syrian government had said that it had bodies and other evidence to prove that the populace was subjected to a chemical attack.

“The use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere in the world is not only a red line, it is a purple line, a blood line, and nobody is tolerated, or will be tolerated to use such horrific weapons of mass destruction,” said Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, after Obama’s threat to order military action against Syria. Ja’afari pointed out that Syria’s enemies led by the West and its regional allies such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are arming and bankrolling the armed rebels, most of them takfiri, had been making unsubstantiated charges against the Syrian government since late last year.

France and the United Kingdom had urged the U.N. in December to investigate claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Homs. In a letter to the U.N., Qatar claimed that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in many parts of country. But it did not bother to provide details about the dates or locations of such use.

These accusations have given an excuse for the Obama administration to further increase its involvement in the Syrian conflict. The U.S. President, during his latest round of sabre-rattling, revealed that he had asked the Pentagon in early 2012 to prepare a blueprint for all the military options that were available to him. According to the spokesperson of the U.S. National Security Council, in late April he had directed his national security team “to identify additional measures” to increase the existing substantial assistance to the Syrian rebel groups. Chuck Hagel said recently that Washington was considering supplying arms to the Syrian rebel groups directly.

The bulk of the funding and arms go to Al Nusra, which is in control of most of the diminishing territory the rebels are holding inside Syria. A recent article in The New York Times noted that “fighting brigades led by extremists” were in charge in all the rebel-held territories. “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of,” the article concluded.

Though the Obama administration has belatedly labelled Al Nusra as a “terrorist” group, it looks the other way when funds and weapons flow into the group’s coffers. There are reports that the U.S. is preparing to despatch anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to the rebels. A Russian civilian aircraft, which was over-flying Syria recently, was fired upon. The U.S. is encouraging Israel to use its military power against Syria and assist the takfiris, who had fought against the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq but are currently focussing their ire on the secular regime in Syria. It is part of the U.S.’ game plan to accentuate the growing sectarian divide in the Muslim world, in the hope of retaining its military stranglehold on the region.

On the day President Obama made his accusations about Syria using chemical weapons, a bomb exploded in central Damascus killing 14 civilians. In the same week, there was an attempt to assassinate the Syrian Prime Minister as he was driving to his office. Among those killed in that attempt were security personnel and innocent bystanders. The Syrian government remains defiant in all this and, as the U.S. media have reported, it still has the support of the majority. The people, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, are fed up with the unending cycle of bombings and the targeting of civilian areas by the rebels.

The Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in an important speech in late April, warned the West against overplaying its hand. He said the West should realise that Syria had friends in the region. “Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris. What would you imagine would happen if things deteriorate in a way that requires the intervention of the forces of resistance in this battle?” he asked.

Russia and China continue to provide strong diplomatic support to Syria. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee sent a warmly worded congratulatory letter to his Syrian counterpart on Syria’s independence day on April 17.

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