A surprise rebel assault on the eastern suburbs of Damascus has been driven back by the Syrian Army. Meanwhile a further round of peace talks in Geneva, between the government and major rebel factions, will soon begin.
Since the so-called ceasefire began in December last year, both sides have, with justification, accused the other of breaching the agreement. Israel has increased its involvement in the war, with a drone killing of an alleged pro-Assad fighter, part of a militia supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Exchanges of fire between the Syrian army and Israel have also intensified after anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets. The latest strike by Israel was judged to be too close to Russian troops and the Israeli ambassador to Moscow has now been summoned to the Russian government to explain what happened. Rules of engagement agreed between Russia and Israel now appear to be fractured. Israel had been given the go-ahead to target Hezbollah weapons caches and supplies.
This is the first time that Syria has deployed anti-aircraft missiles in retaliation. Increased tensions on the Israel’s northern border are bad news. The far right Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said he would not hesitate to destroy the Syrian air defence system if it fired on Israeli jets a second time.
Israel’s increased involvement reflects a potential obstacle to the now almost inevitable, if slow, victory of Assad. Israel had wanted the Syrian regime to be undermined and a consequent undermining of regional influence for Iran, a vastly weakened Hezbollah. But Russian intervention has swung the conflict back Assad’s way. Rebel groups and Daesh are now under enormous pressure and Iran has been given almost free reign to supply weapons to pro-government militia.
Assad’s forces and Hezbollah have clawed back territory, creating conditions more conducive for Iran to supply weapons to the Lebanese militants. It seems both Russia and Israel are reluctant to step back from their respective positions and military offensives. Israel wants to cut off Hezbollah’s access to high-powered weaponry.
A former defence chief Brig Gen Nitzan Nuriel put it starkly, “Russia got the messages it needs to receive from Israel... Israel will not allow anyone, including Russia to get in the way of implementing our military mission.”
Israel’s intervention may have still more terrible costs for the civilian populations across the Middle East.