North-east of Israel, in the vast and arid plains of Syria, an ancient land that has seen more than its fair share of trouble is once again experiencing tumult.
The most recent turbulence erupted in the Arab Spring of 2011, since when widespread protests have slowly grown into civil war.
For two years, Jerusalem has worried about a sizeable state disintegrating on its doorstep, and of its lethal weapons – currently under state control – falling into the hands of hostile militant groups on Israel’s borders.
For two years, we watched grainy camera-phone footage of street-level carnage, and read daily reports of rebel gains, rebel losses, cities bombarded and villages pounded. It all seemed to rumble on in the background, and as the world disagreed on the merits of military intervention, fundamentalists, jihadists and assorted others filtered in through porous borders.
For two years, Iran seemed more pressing, and aside from the occasional mortar straying across the Golan Heights, Israel had little cause for direct military intervention. Until now…
Unconfirmed reports suggest the recent use of sarin gas inside Syria. If proven, and if authorised by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Washington and Jerusalem both say this would be ‘a game changer.’
This is code for ‘intervention,’ but both the US and Israel are hugely reluctant to wade in. The most Obama is likely to do in the short-term is to arm the Assad’s opponents with something more offensive than night-vision goggles. Israel, however, is not focusing on the rebels.
Having long trailed the Jewish state in terms of military strength, Damascus sought to offset their conventional disadvantage by assembling a robust chemical weapons arsenal. It also bought a missile system to deliver them, with help from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
If this stockpile were to work its way towards Lebanon, Hezbollah would think it was pay day.
It is no surprise then that targeted airstrikes, reportedly by Israel, are being undertaken with increasing frequency, most noticeably in recent days. These night-time sorties seem designed to rid Assad both of his most advanced weapons and of the Iranians who seem so keen to help him move them. Angry ayatollahs and huge secondary explosions at weapons depots show that whoever is taking aim is bang on target.
There are no trumpets heralding Israel’s arrival onto the battlefield. Indeed, this is a nightmarish scenario for the Jewish state from every angle.
Militarily, the objective seems straightforward (stop the bad guys getting the weapons) and so far, all Israeli aircraft have returned unscathed. But with ballistic and cruise missiles, supported by a fleet of jets, Assad has teeth. He also has friends. In this game of chess, his queen is Russia, whose battleships dock at the Syrian port of Tartus whenever NATO noises are heard.
Politically, it is even more dangerous. Syria’s opposition is fractured at best, and mainly exiled, shouting from armchairs abroad, with little or no clout on the streets. In short, there is no obvious political alternative to Assad. No-one wants him to stay, but the jihadist street heroes – who would presumably take over if he were overthrown – see Israel as the arch-enemy, and regularly say so. These are the rebels the West now proposes to arm…
Add to this the fact that Syria has become a meddler’s paradise. Russia, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan are all actors. Their favouring, training and arming of rebel groups is ever-changing. Within this minefield, Israel’s enemies see the distress of Damascus as an opportunity.
It’s all deeply troubling. The prize for Iranian proxies is a mouth-watering stash of nasties, while the size and complexity of Syria mean that Israel’s margin for error is miniscule. With first-class aerial surveillance and an unrivalled human intelligence network, Israel is well-placed to react to events on the ground, so we can expect to see more unattributed airstrikes. But there are sleepless nights ahead. Not least because no-one yet has a clue what the end game is.