Nicholas Blanford writes: A dangerous game of brinkmanship is unfolding in the Middle East pitting Israel against Syria and its militant Shi‘ite ally Hizballah in what threatens to expand the two-year Syrian civil war into a full-blown regional conflict. On three separate occasions since January — two of them within 48 hours of each other last Friday and Sunday — Israeli jets have attacked Syrian military bases, targeting consignments of advanced weaponry supplied allegedly by Iran that were pending transfer to Hizballah across the nearby border with Lebanon. The air raids were unprecedented. Israel has never before risked striking at Hizballah’s Iranian-supplied weapons inside Syria.
For now, though, Israel’s gamble seems to have paid off. Other than some initial huffing and puffing from Damascus, no immediate retaliation was forthcoming. But rather than acting as a deterrence, the air strikes appear to have galvanized Syria to promise even greater amounts of sophisticated weaponry to Hizballah and also to announce the launch of a popular resistance campaign to liberate the Golan Heights, the strategic volcanic plateau in the southwest corner of the country that has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Israel’s intervention into the grueling Syrian civil war comes amid faint glimmers of a diplomatic breakthrough with the U.S. and Russia agreeing to an international conference to help end a conflict that has left more than 70,000 people dead. But the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has gained some tactical military successes of late, launching mini-offensives to retake territory previously lost to opposition rebels. The rebel setbacks may have strengthened the Assad regime’s grim resolve to win the conflict, especially given its confidence in the continued support of regional allies, Iran and Hizballah. [Continue reading…]