On Thursday, Israel launched an airstrike on a Syrian regime factory at Masyaf, approximately 10 miles west of Hama (which Assad's father once destroyed). The former chief of Israel's Aman intelligence service tweeted that the factory was used to produce chemical weapons and precision ground-to-ground rockets.
Israel has previously targeted Iranian and Syrian rocket supplies to the Lebanese Hezbollah, but this attack is far more aggressive than usual. And in that sense, I believe Israel is sending two different messages; one to Iran and Assad, and one to the United States.
Israel's message to Iran and Assad is clear: "Do not think we will sit idle as you develop advanced weapons with which to threaten us."
This particular operation suggests Israel believed that Assad's rocket development was reaching a critical mass, and that it had to act in order to preserve the existing balance of power. Sensing a growing risk of conflict with Hamas and/or Hezbollah, Israel seeks to ensure that its enemies will struggle to strike Israeli population centers with long-range rockets. Operating relatively deep inside Lebanon, those rocket teams would be hard for Israel to strike once a conflict begins. In addition, while Israel has anti-missile systems, they are imperfect.
At the broader strategic level, however, operations such as Thursday's are just another reflection of Israel's "total war" mentality. Where we see Israel living in a peace marked by occasional outbreaks of conflict, Israel sees itself in an ongoing war marked by occasional periods of quiet.
Then there's Israel's message to the United States: "We will take unilateral action to defend our interests."
Context is king here.
Put simply, Netanyahu is disappointed and concerned by President Trump's increasing willingness to cede the Syrian battlespace to Assad. That's because Israel views Assad's greater power as a conduit to Iran's improved means to threaten it. Israel also fears that Trump is following his predecessor in being delusional in accepting Russian-brokered cease fire agreements in Syria.
Ultimately, there's both irony and decisiveness in this airstrike. Irony, because Israel is reviled in much of the Middle East and portrayed as a gleeful killer of innocent civilians. Yet by this strike on a chemical weapons production facility, Israel has probably saved thousands of innocent Syrian lives. Decisiveness, because Israel has also grabbed our attention with an increasingly rare message: We take our red lines seriously.