The New Zealand Herald
Strikes up the ante in Syria
Israel accused of bombing air base after gas attack
Asuspected poison gas attack in a Syrian rebel-held town and airstrikes on a Syrian air base that Damascus and Moscow blamed on US ally Israel have escalated tensions in the already volatile Middle East and raised the threat of American retaliation.
The timing of the airstrikes in central Homs province on Monday, hours after President Donald Trump said there would be “a big price to pay” for the chemical weapons attack on Sunday, raised questions about whether Israel was acting alone or as a proxy for the United States. The strike on the air base reportedly killed 14 people, including four Iranians.
The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in his most dire warning since taking the job four years ago, warned the UN Security Council that recent grave events have drawn national, regional and international actors “into dangerous situations of potential or actual confrontation”.
Israel did not comment on Monday’s missile strike. The Jewish state typically does not comment on its airstrikes in Syria, which have been numerous in Syria’s civil war.
The fast-paced developments threatened to further hike tensions between the US and Russia, which has in the past warned against any US military action against President Bashar al-Assad’s Government. Iran, a key ally of Assad, condemned the airstrikes, which it said killed four Iranians, including a colonel and a member of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace force.
Opposition activists said 40 people died in Sunday’s chemical attack in the town of Douma, the last remaining rebel bastion in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, blaming Assad’s forces. The attack killed entire families in their homes and underground shelters, opposition activists and local rescuers said.
The Syrian Government strongly denied it carried out a chemical weapons attack and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it has opened an investigation. In a statement, it said a fact-finding mission was gathering information from all available sources to establish whether chemical weapons were used.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, urged inspectors from the watchdog agency to fly to Syria’s capital and visit the site in a nearby rebel-held town. He denied any attack occurred, telling the Security Council that experts from Russia’s military radiological, biological and chemical unit went to the site and found no chemical substances on the ground, no dead, and no poisoned people in hospitals.
Trump yesterday condemned the “heinous attack” in Syria and said later at a Cabinet meeting that he would “forcefully” respond. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump warned.
He said that after conferring with his military advisers, he would soon decide on how to respond, and against whom. “If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out,” Trump said. Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added: “Everybody’s going to pay a price — he will, everybody will.”
Nebenzia called a US military option “very, very dangerous”, not only for Syria itself but for the world.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said Assad’s Government and its backers, including Russia, “must be held to account” if it is found to have been responsible for the suspected poison gas attack.
The European Union also laid the blame squarely on Assad’s Government.
The Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the chemical attack and the council president said experts were working on a resolution on the continuing use of chemical weapons in Syria, but sharp differences remain between Russia and the US and its allies.
The airstrike was the second this year on the Syrian air base, known as T4, where Iranian fighters are believed to be stationed. Israel hit the base in February, after it said an Iranian drone that violated Israeli airspace took off from it.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said two Israeli aircraft targeted the base on Monday, firing eight missiles. It said Syria shot down five of them while the other three landed in the western part of the base. Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Israeli F-15 warplanes fired several missiles at T4. It gave no further details.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had no comment when asked about reports of the airstrikes.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli fighter pilot and ex-head of Israeli military intelligence, stopped short of saying Israel was responsible for the airstrike. But he suggested that the chemical attack had crossed a red line and prompted Israel to take action to send a message to Syria and arch enemy Iran.
“The Iranians are determined to base themselves in Syria,” he told the Army Radio station. “Israel is determined not to let them do that. And there is a strategic collision that perhaps tonight may have come together because of the chemical issue.”
Since 2012, Israel has struck inside Syria more than 100 times, mostly targeting suspected weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, which has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
The base, which was used as a launching pad for attacks against Isis (Islamic State) militants who were at one point stationed nearby, is near the Shayrat air base, which was targeted by US missiles last year in response to a chemical weapons attack.
Syria’s state news agency Sana initially said the attack on the T4 air base was likely “an American aggression”. But the Pentagon denied involvement, and the agency then dropped the accusation, blaming Israel instead.
The Syrian Government has denied the chemical weapons allegations, calling them fabrications. The Russian military said its officers visited the hospital in Douma and talked to the staff, and said they did not confirm reports of the assault.
The Iranians are determined to base themselves in Syria. Israel is determined not to let them do that. Amos Yadlin