Powder Keg in Syria

Hussain Malla/AP Images
A Hezbollah supporter during a campaign speech by Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah near Beirut, Lebanon, April 2018

The air strike carried out against Syria on April 13 by the Unites States, Britain, and France—“Operation Desert Stormy” in Bill Maher’s memorable phrase—was carefully pegged to the alleged responsibility of the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Douma on April 7, which killed more than forty people and violated the Chemical Weapons Convention. The strike was explicitly presented as a matter of deterrence, not regime change, and the targets—the Barzah Research and Development Center in the Damascus suburbs and the Him Shinshar chemical weapons complex near Homs—bore this out. No presidential palaces were struck, although the countries responsible for the strike were clearly willing to hit Damascus itself. The regime has kept its nerve throughout the civil war, even when the opposition wiped out almost the entire Syrian war cabinet in 2012 with a cleverly placed bomb, and when in the spring of 2015 Palmyra and Jisr al-Shughour fell to rebels who were simultaneously laying siege to western Aleppo. It is scarcely likely to be intimidated by a single strike on this scale. This does not mean that the Trump administration won’t eventually launch another, but for the moment, the status quo will probably prevail.

Under the cover of the raid and the rhetoric that preceded it—Trump labeled Assad a “Gas Killing Animal” who enjoyed murdering his own people—the Israelis were advancing their own objectives in Syria. Two days after the atrocity in Douma, the Israeli air force hit a Syrian air base near Homs, killing at least seven Iranian military advisers. Tehran took notice. “Iran is not Syria,” said Ali Shirazi, a Revolutionary Guard Corps official. “If Israel wants to survive for several more days, it needs to stop this children’s play. Iran has the ability to obliterate Israel and when prompted to, [it will be moved] to turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into dust.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned that “Israel’s crime will not remain unanswered.”

Since Donald Trump took office, Israel, the United States, and Iran have been lurching toward war. In Jerusalem and Washington, fear and frustration have been accumulating since 2015, when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. Because it did not result in the permanent elimination of Iran’s nuclear capability, its critics in the US and Israel rejected it as at best irrelevant. At worst it was seen as abetting Iranian tyranny and aggression (by giving Iran legitimacy as a diplomatic partner) and funding its imperial designs (by suspending sanctions). Having lost the fight against the deal, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their advocates in Washington turned their attention back to Iran’s conventional threat to the region. Iran, they argued, exercised undue influence in Lebanon, supported Shia…

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