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Israeli jets and ground-to-ground missile attacks on targets in the outskirts of Damascus are a mark of Israel’s heightened concern as President Bashar al-Assad comes close to winning the civil war in Syria. Israel’s security cabinet has held meetings several times in recent days to discuss how it should respond to the “day-after” the war as Syria returns to Mr Assad’s control and to Iran’s expanded influence in Syria according to Israeli television reports.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel’s policy was to stop Hezbollah moving “game-changing weapons” out of Syria into Lebanon. “We back it [the policy] up as necessary with action,” he added. Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes against Syrian Army and Hezbollah arms depots and military facilities in the past six years.
The strikes are a sign that Israel is trying to adjust to likely new developments in Syria in 2018: as the end of the civil war comes in sight, Hezbollah and the Syrian armed forces, both battle hardened by the war, will no longer be tied down by fighting and could be deployed to confront Israel.
The Syrian war is by no means over, but the success of the coalition that includes Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia forces means that the balance of power in the region is swinging against Israel.
The Syrian Army is advancing swiftly without much resistance into the largest remaining rebel enclave in province of Idlib south west of Aleppo, in an offensive launched a week ago. Backed by artillery and air strikes, Syrian units are fighting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the al Nusra Front and once the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, which is dominant in the province. Other rebel groups complain that HTS is refusing to cooperate with them in holding back government forces.
The Syrian Army and air force are also battering Eastern Ghouta, the other large rebel enclave just east of Damascus, the capture of which would give Mr Assad full control of the capital and the area round it, something he has not enjoyed since 2011.
Although the long-term success of Syrian government forces looks inevitable, it will take them time to re-establish central control. The Syrian Kurds – who captured Isis’s de facto capital Raqqa in October backed by US-led air strikes – control a great swathe of territory east of the Euphrates. They need to keep US support, including several bases in Kurdish-held territory, as a guarantee against Turkish military intervention or an offensive by Syrian forces. At the same time, they look to a long-term agreement with Damascus which would guarantee their autonomy.
Israel is concerned about the return of the Syrian Army to parts of southern Syria close to Israel as it tries to reopen the road to Jordan. There is a US-Russian agreement arranged by President Vladimir Putin that Hezbollah and Iranian backed forces will not approach within 25 miles of the Israeli-Syrian front line in the Golan.
But Mr Assad is likely to be less reliant on the support, and more independent of the wishes, of his two main allies, Russia and Iran, as he gets close to victory.
The latest Israeli air strikes and the angry Syrian response show that both sides are muscle-flexing. But, while the Israelis have an interest in preventing Hezbollah acquiring a substantial arsenal of long-range missiles that could reach far into Israel, neither side has an interest in going to war which would cause a lot of destruction but produce no winner, as in 2006 when Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel has received vociferous backing from President Trump and the US but the Israelis must wonder – along with the rest of the world – how much Mr Trump’s supportive tweets are really worth. Even his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not an unalloyed gain for Israel since it changes nothing much on the ground, but it has put the Israeli-Palestinian issue back at the top of the political agenda in the Middle East to a degree not seen since 9/11 and the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Israeli air strikes are not necessarily a precursor to a wider military conflict, but they do show that Israel believes it can no longer stay on the margins of the Syrian war. As the conflict comes to an end that is bound to be messy, Israel wants to be a leading player in shaping its final outcome.