Can't Wait for Washington
UPDATE/31 January: An Iraqi newspaper in London (consider the source) reports the Israeli airstrike near Damascus yesterday targeted a chemical and biological weapons production facility. According to western diplomats in Syria (who were interviewed by the publication), Israeli F-16s launched air-to-surface missiles against the complex and dropped at least one "bunker-buster" bomb.
The same sources claim the facility was guarded by 3,000 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and a number were killed in the attack.
If this account is accurate--and we have our doubts--it suggests the Assad regime is nearing collapse. Entrusting security of a WMD complex to the IRGC suggests the Syrian dictator can't trust the most elite members of his military, or the fight is going so badly that all ground force elements have been committed to the fight against the rebels.
In either case, it provides yet another indication of a regime nearing collapse. What happens after Assad's departure is anyone's guess, but there will almost certainly be a bloodbath--and a scramble for what's left of the Syrian WMD arsenal. For now, the U.S. seems to content to let events run their course, virtually ensuring that thousands more will die and some chemical and biological weapons may fall into the "wrong" hands.
The on-going civil war in Syria inched closer to becoming a regional conflict, as Israeli jets attacked a research complex near Damascus, and a weapons convoy heading to Lebanon.
With the Assad regime rapidly losing its grip on power, there have been rising concerns about "last ditch" moves by the Syrian dictator, ranging from chemical weapons attacks on neighbors like Israel and Turkey, to the transfer of chemical and biological weapons to its ally in Lebanon, the terrorist group Hizballah.
Needless to say, today's airstrike on that convoy did nothing to allay those fears. Indeed, reports of Syrian weapons on the move--even conventional arms--suggest that Assad's government is in its last days, and assets are being transferred to prevent them from falling into rebel hands.
According to a press report, the convoy attacked today was carrying advanced SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Hizballah. From Israel National News:
The arms convoy that Israel reportedly attacked last night along the Syria-Lebanon border carried SA-16 missiles, among other things, according to foreign sources. The SA-17 is a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.
Israel has not responded thus far to reports in the foreign press, according to which the IAF carried out the attack on the convoy.
According to some reports, the weapons convoy was attacked shortly after it crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon. Another source reported that the attack took place when the convoy was still inside Syrian territory.
The Israeli Air Force Chief of Staff, Major General Amir Eshel, virtually telegraphed the move, in a speech he gave a few hours before the airstrikes began:
"The example in the north, in Syria, is the most glaring one, of a state that is in a process of disintegration, about which none of us has a clue as to what will be there on the day after," Eshel said
"Add to that a huge weapons arsenal, some of which is state-of-the-art, some of it unconventional, and all of this is happening – I can't call it our back yard, but on our borders. So we have challenges here ranging from the limited ones to the very large ones.
So far, there have been no details about the strike on that research complex. But it's a fair bet the targeted facility is connected to Syria's vast WMD program. Israel has repeatedly vowed to use military force to prevent Assad's inventory of chemical and biological weapons from being transferred to Hizballah. Today's raids suggest that Israel has detected disturbing activity that, in their view, must be halted. The frequency and volume of air strikes in the coming days will give us some idea of what is going on inside Syria, in relation to its WMD arsenal.
For what it's worth, the U.S. (and President Obama) have made similar vows, saying the employment or transfer of WMD by Assad would represent the crossing of a "red line" that would not be tolerated. So far, Washington has done nothing to back up such claims, a development not lost on our allies in the region, particularly Israel.
A medium-range SAM based on the original SA-11/GADFLY system, the SA-17 (NATO code name GRIZZLY) would provide a major upgrade for Hizballah's air defenses, which consist (chiefly) of shoulder-fired SAMs and light/medium caliber AAA guns. With a maximum range of 20 miles--and an advanced radar--the SA-17 would allow Hizballah to engage a variety of aerial targets, ranging from jet fighters to smart bombs. It's the type of "game-changer" that Israel simply can't allow in Lebanon.
Syria has operated the SA-17 for several years, and it's never been an impediment to Israeli air operations. Still, in the right hands, the GRIZZLY can be a formidable air defense system. During its brief 2008 war with Georgia, the Russian Air Force lost at least four aircraft to the SA-11, a development that was particularly embarrassing when you consider that Russian engineers designed and built the system.
With today's air strikes, Israel made it clear that it will not wait for the U.S. to decide on military action. It's a perfectly understandable course of action. Had Jerusalem let Mr. Obama take the lead, those SA-17s would have arrived safely in Lebanon, and they would be in service in a matter of days or weeks.
If there's any good news about the U.S. in this matter, it is the current silence from Washington regarding today's attacks. There are indications the United States has given Israel some degree of latitude in protecting its interests in Syria and Lebanon. IAF fighters remained active over Lebanon for hours after today's raids, apparently waiting for new targets to materialize. It's a given that Israel's drone fleet is monitoring targets throughout Lebanon and even inside Syria, looking for more weapons convoys or changes at WMD facilities. When those occur, the IAF will strike once more.
Sometimes, leading from behind simply isn't an option.