Beirut, Oct. 6 (Reuters): An Israeli strike deep into Syria yesterday is the boldest warning yet to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cooperate with Israel and the US to curb militants in Palestinian areas and Iraq, analysts said.
With the military balance overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour, Syrian military retaliation is ruled out, leaving diplomacy as Assad’s main tool to confront the mounting challenges from his southern and eastern neighbours.
The US wants Syria to do more to stop the influx of Muslim militants crossing the eastern border to Iraq. Washington blames “foreign terrorists” for playing a key role in attacks against US soldiers and other targets in post-war Iraq.
Israel demands Damascus halt its backing for militant Palestinian groups and Lebanon’s Hizbollah guerrillas.
Beirut-based political scientist Walid Moubarak said that by attacking Syria, Israel was trying to show that it was battling the same enemy as the US.
“The Israelis are trying to associate their strategy with the American strategy of fighting terrorism and stepping up pressure on Syria,” Moubarak said.
“The strike comes in line with a process to increase the pressure on Syria to cooperate more with Israel and the US to get rid of Palestinian militants and to stop the influx of Muslim ‘terrorists’ from Syria into Iraq,” he said.
The Israeli army said it had attacked a base near Damascus used by militant groups including Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 19 people in a restaurant in the northern city of Haifa on Saturday.
Syria said Israel had targeted a civilian site in what it called a “grave escalation” of tensions in West Asia, but said it would exercise restraint. The UN Security Council called an urgent meeting for Sunday at the request of Syria, which is asking the 15-member body to condemn Israel for the attack. Analysts said that while the UN and Washington would move to halt the escalation in the immediate future, the raid moved the goal posts.
“This is a new phase, the beginning of a new phase of retaliation, because nothing can stop Israel from hitting Syrian targets or Palestinian targets in Syria,” Farid al-Khazen, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut said.
“Since there is no military deterrence to Israel, Israel will use that new policy again if there is another attack against Israeli civilians.” Khazen said the US would step in to make sure that there would not be any further deterioration.
“That could be useful and be effective for a while until there is another attack by Islamic Jihad or Hamas, and then no one can stop Israel from retaliating,” he said. Moubarak said Syria was already largely isolated because of US pressure and changes in Iraq. He ruled out that Damascus would try to retaliate indirectly by having Hizbollah heat up Lebanon’s southern border with Israel and said it had to engage the US diplomatically.
“The Syrians don’t announce what they do. Behind the usual rhetoric, they will speak to the Americans and see how they can ease the pressure.” But Imad al-Shuaibi, a prominent Syrian political analyst who reflects the views of the government, said Syria would not abandon anti-Israeli Palestinian groups.
“Israel’s message to Syria is that Damascus will pay for anything that happens in Israel and that is a very unacceptable attempt to mix things up because there is no country that can influence the Palestinian decision to resist (occupation),” he said.
“If Israel was trying to address the issue of Palestinian presence in Syria in such a way then it is opening the gate to hell for itself because that means that it has to implement UN resolution 194 which requires the repatriation of refugees, and that’s something Israel doesn't want,” he said.