The U.S. military has sent spy planes to Israel and plans to dispatch a warship to Israel amid unverified Pentagon reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was planning a chemical weapons attack.
As Assad on Tuesday visited a key airbase on Syria’s west coast that is leased by Russia, three U.S. spy planes flew just miles away over the Mediterranean Sea. An RC-135U Combat Sent, an RC-135V Rivet Joint and a P-8 Poseidon, all capable of gathering detailed intelligence on targets, were spotted off the waters of Lebanon and Syria, operating not far from the Shayrat airbase, according to The Aviationist. The U.S. attacked the Syrian airfield in April after accusing Assad of using it to launch a Sarin gas attack on civilians days earlier. Assad and his Russian ally, President Vladimir Putin, deny that the Syrian military possesses chemical weapons. Defense Secretary James Mattis took credit Wednesday when no such attack occurred.
“It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Mattis told reporters, according to BBC News. “They didn’t do it.”
The spy planes weren’t the only additional U.S. military assets being sent to the region. Nimitz-class supercarrier USS George H.W. Bush was scheduled to spend the Fourth of July weekend in Israel, a staunch ally of the U.S. and longtime enemy of Syria. The aircraft carrier was set to bring with it up to 5,700 sailors and pilots and about 50 aircraft, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The massive warship has been used to support the U.S.-led campaign to target positions held by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, which Washington continues to battle through majority-Kurdish local militants in the jihadists’ de facto capital of Raqqa.
Lately, however, the U.S. and Israel have increasingly targeted forces supportive of Assad in hopes of curbing the influence of his ally Iran, which sponsors militias battling ISIS nationwide. These militias, which operate alongside the Syrian army, were first targeted by U.S. forces last month when they entered a previously undeclared “deconfliction zone” unilaterally established by the U.S. near Syria’s southern borders with Iraq and Jordan. The U.S. attacked the pro-government fighters twice more and, after U.S.-backed forces claimed Syria’s air force was bombing too close, the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet operating near the two factions’ dueling campaigns to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. The incident has sparked major tensions with Russia, which has threatened to treat U.S. planes operating in the area as “air targets.”
Israel too has entered the war in Syria. Like the U.S., Israel has been a supporter of various insurgent groups that have tried to topple Assad’s government since 2011, accusing the Syrian leader of egregious human rights abuses and political oppression. Israel has kept relatively quiet about its support for rebel groups operating in the occupied Golan Heights region, but has openly launched airstrikes on positions held by militants of the Iran-backed, Lebanese majority-Shiite Hezbollah and the Syrian army. In the latest instance, Israeli helicopters attacked the Syrian military Saturday as it attempted to repel an offensive by the former Nusra Front, a hardline Sunni Muslim group known now as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Israel reportedly offered the group medical assistance until 2015, but has since said it has cut ties.
President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have united in their enmity for Iran and have approached the country’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, as well. All three countries accuse Iran of destabilizing the region through political and militant organizations they consider to be terrorist groups.