Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told CNN on Sunday that overnight Israeli air raids into his country were tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
Israel likely carried out strikes against army installations north of the Syrian capital Damascus early Sunday morning although its military refused to comment. Explosions were witnessed in the area and onlookers reported having sighted planes.
Mekdad accused Israel of aiding Islamist rebels in Syria who are battling the secular regime of President Bashar Assad. He vowed that Israel will “suffer again” in retaliation which, in the past, “was always painful to Israel,” he said.
However, it is unlikely that Assad’s government will initiate such hostilities. It needs the manpower and resources it has to prevent an internal uprising from spreading. Israel, for its part, has no desire to expand its involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The two Middle Eastern countries have fought a number of wars since the Jewish state was founded in 1949. The last, in 1982, took place in Lebanon which Syria had effectively occupied. Israel’s subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon contributed to the emergence of Hezbollah, a militant Shia organization that has been armed and funded by the regime in Damascus. Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israel’s forces from Lebanon in 2000.
Sunday’s reported attack came days after Israel apparently carried out airstrikes on Thursday or Friday although its warplanes might not have entered Syrian airspace at the time.
In January, Israeli jets were reported to have struck a convoy near the Lebanese border carrying Russian anti-aircraft missiles supposedly destined for Hezbollah. Israel had warned that it might target any transfer of weapons to this or other terrorist groups.
Hezbollah fighters appear to have been engaged in the Syrian government’s repression of what is mainly a Sunni Muslim insurgency against Assad’s minority regime. Rebels control swaths of the north and east of the country where Sunnis are in the majority. Loyalist remain strong in and around the capital as well as the northwestern coastal strip which is the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
Israel has been reluctant to intervene in Syria throughout its two years of civil war. While it maintained a cold peace with Assad who, despite an outstanding border dispute in the Golan Heights, never made war on Israel directly, a Sunni-majority regime, possibly led by religious fanatics who are among the most effective rebel fighters, could either menace Israel or ally with other Sunni states in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have maintained mostly peaceful relations with Israel and are allies of the United States’ as well.