By Seth J. Frantzman
At 2:30 am on September 7th a Syrian government compound nestled near a hillside near Masyaf blew up. “It is no ordinary base,” writes Jack Moore at Newsweek. The BBC added it was one of the sites that western intelligence said “in May that three branches of the SSRC – at Masyaf, and at Dummar and Barzeh, both just outside Damascus – were being used to produce chemical munitions in violation of the 2013 deal.”
The Syrian government warned of “dangerous repercussions of this aggressive action to the security and stability of the region” after it happened. Anna Ahronheim at The Jerusalem Post noted the site was “in the area of Hama, and also targeted several weapons convoys that were en route to Hezbollah strongholds in the area.” According to another report in The Jerusalem Post Yaakov Amidror provided an additional assessment. There is a “probability that the Syrian military research center allegedly struck by Israeli warplanes on Thursday morning was targeted because of concerns that Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah had asked Damascus to hand over the facility to the Lebanon-based Shi’ite terror group.”
The site, near Masyaf, which has a pretty castle, is one of many run by the Scientific Studies and Research Center, or SSRC. Amos Yadlin a former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate and Executive Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), wrote a series of tweets noting that the attack “targeted a Syrian military-scientific center for the development and manufacture of, among other things, precision missiles.” It was not a “routine” attack. Furthermore “The factory that was targeted in Masyaf produces the chemical weapons and barrel bombs that have killed thousands of Syrian civilians.”
He says the attack provided three lessons. Israel will not tolerate the construction of “strategic weapons,” that Israel has clear redlines and that the “the presence of Russian air defense does not prevent airstrikes attributed to Israel.”
The site at Masyaf has been known for many years. In 2013 an article and map at Ynet marked it as one of many chemical weapons sites for storage in Syria. That was during the crises when western powers were threatening Assad after he used chemical weapons against civilians. Since 2013 there have been many new developments and allegations that Iran is building bases in Syria. There have also been many airstrikes against weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria.
The attack comes a day after the UN released a report accusing Assad of using chemical weapons. Images posted online showed a huge fire in the distance.
Some have remarked that the strike comes 10 years after another alleged Israeli strike on a Syrian nuclear development site. The site is also interesting because of its proximity to another site recently reported in August near Baniyas that is alleged to house an Iranian missile factory.
The sites are only 30 km apart.
Both of the sites are also near the Russian naval base at Tartus and the Khmeimim air force base which is also used by Russia.
This means any airstrike against the Maysaf site had to contend with Syrian air defenses but also the Russians. Former Israel Air Force chief Amir Eshel has said that Israel had struck more than 100 times in Syria in the past five years. But an airstrike near Hama would be one of the deepest raid, much further than those closer to the Golan and Damascus. It would be similar in complexity to the march strike near Palmyra.
So this leaves many questions.
How does it affect Israel’s relations with Russia in Syria? Israel-Russia relations have gone through a “big change” in recent years and there is a lot of strategic dialogue about Syria.
Does this send a clear message to Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime? The post-ISIS period of the Syrian conflict is about to arrive and the conflict in general is morphing into a new stage. There are allegations Israel missed the planning for this next step. Now Israel has been warning the international community about Hezbollah and Iran and seeking to telegraph what might come next.
Was it timed to coincide with the UN report? A day before the strike the UN released a report about Syrian chemical weapons. Is it just a coincidence that it came so soon after? Obviously a strike like this would require planning, but people might have also been knowledgeable about when the UN report was coming out. Many eyes are now on Syria, including the US.
Was the target chemical weapons or something else? It is unclear if the target was chemical weapons or precision missiles as Yadlin tweeted.
It is also unclear why this was the moment to strike, was it due to the chances of transfer to Hezbollah? Most strikes in Syria have related to transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.