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The JC Comment Blog

Is Israel punishing Syria for chemical weapons attacks?

There's growing speculation that the missile attack was launched by Israeli jets, but as always with the Middle East, there is more complexity.

    There was fevered speculation on Monday morning over a reported missile strike on an air base in central Syria.

    Unverified videos shared on Facebook showed projectiles skimming noisily across the night sky. 

    At first, Syria's state news agency said people had been killed, but gave no figures. It also blamed the United States.

    The implication was clear: a day after a horrific chemical attack in Ghouta and mere hours after Donald Trump tweeted there would be a “big price to pay” for it, the US had responded against the Syrian regime with force.

    Many international observers appeared to agree.

    This weekend our TV news screens were filled with footage of Syrians hosing themselves down following the  chemical attack. Then there are the images most media did not show you because they are too distressing: of children's lifeless bodies, covered in dust, foaming at the mouth.

    Given Mr Trump aimed nearly five dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base a year ago after another chemical attack by Assad's forces, it seemed the most plausible explanation that a repeat strike had been ordered.

    But then, the US said it was not involved: efforts are underway to coordinate a global diplomatic response, the Pentagon said. Syria's news agency promptly withdrew its accusation. Then France issued a denial of its own.

    Israel, tellingly, has still refused to comment.

    Like the US, Israel too has struck Syria recently. In February, its F-16Is ran a bombing raid deep inside the country.

    But that operation in large part targeted a base suspected of controlling an Iranian drone that flew into airspace above the Golan Heights. Saturday’s horrific chemical incident in Douma was not one that immediately threatened Israel’s borders.

    Perhaps, Jerusalem Post correspondent Anna Ahronheim surmised, it was “a message that the Jewish state won’t stand idly by as civilians are gassed.”

    With protests ongoing in Gaza and a separate Israeli strike on the strip this morning, you can’t help but think there’s enough on the IDF’s plate without heaping Syria onto it too.

    Clarity, such as it is, appears to have come from Russia.

    Israeli aircraft targeted the T4 air base in Homs province, firing eight missiles, the Russian defence ministry said later on Monday. Syria shot down five of them while the other three landed in the western part of the base, it added.

    It appears the timing of the strike so soon after the chemical attack was a coincidence, not a response. There are also reports Israel did not coordinate with the Russians in advance, which they did do in February.

    As always with the Middle East, there is always room for more complexity.

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