At the outbreak of the revolution in Syria two years ago, the Israeli government announced that events there were none of its business and it would not interfere. Forty years of quiet on the Golan Heights had led Israel to prefer Assad over any conceivable replacement. Now, however, when the rebels rule wide areas, when the Syrian army is falling apart, and when the regime’s survival is in the balance, Israeli policy appears to have shifted from passivity to active intervention.
The pretext is to prevent the transport of Iranian arms through Syria to the Hezbollah, but the real purpose of the policy change is to influence the future of Syria in case Assad falls, as Israel thinks he will; Israel wants to push a future Syria away from its alliance with Iran. The weakness of Assad’s regime, especially its loss of control over areas bordering Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, has created a new strategic situation. “The free Syrian army” has established a territorial base on which it can erect an alternative administration. This development has led Hezbollah to enter the fray, and that, in turn, has opened the chink through which Israel could worm its way in.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria began in secret, with Nasrallah denying it absolutely. But the battles in the city of al-Quseir near Homs, and the ethnic cleansing of the Sunni villages by Hezbollah, have exposed his interference. Hezbollah has lost all its political capital in the Arab world. Indeed, the “guru” of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yussef Kardawi, has gone so far as to damn Nasrallah and call for American intervention. Such a moment, with Assad in free fall and Nasrallah in disgrace, offers Israel a golden opportunity to demonstrate its power and thus ensure deterrence.
Israel makes a simple claim: We aren’t attacking the Syrian regime—we’ve gotten along fine with Assad and appreciate the quiet he’s maintained on the Golan. Our problem is with the Hezbollah and the arms from Iran, which threaten our security. However, this claim suffers from several flaws: First, the arms warehouse that Israel blew up was beside Assad’s palace; the fireworks panicked people in Damascus and severely harmed what little is left of Assad’s prestige. Second, what sense does it make to strike in the heart of Damascus—rather than simply wait for Assad’s fall, an event that in any case will cut off Hezbollah’s military lifeline? Instead, Israel chooses the very approach which the US and Europe avoided for fear of chaos.
Assad’s initial reaction has been to preserve the calm with Israel. There were several hours of tension, and then, as a sign that no reprisal was expected, Israeli PM Netanyahu boarded a plane for China. Al-Hayat reports that before the flight he spoke with Russia’s Putin, assuring him that the target was Hezbollah and not Assad. Putin passed the message to Assad, and apparently he also repeated his demand on Hezbollah that it not interfere in Syria (a demand made earlier by his Deputy Foreign Minister in a face-to-face meeting with Nasrallah). Israel emerged unscathed, but with hunger comes appetite, and Assad’s present restraint is no guarantee as to what the response will be the next time.
America on the Defensive
The bombing of Damascus occurred a few days before the visit of the American Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow. After an Israeli intelligence officer revealed that Assad had used chemical weapons, crossing the red line set by President Obama, the White House went on the defensive. Obama acknowledged that such weapons had indeed been used but he claimed a lack of definitive evidence concerning the culprit; in addition, he ruled out putting American soldiers on Syrian soil. To all who demand US military intervention in Syria, above all to Senator John McCain, Obama has always replied that this would be dangerous and complicated.
Kerry’s visit became crucial. On top of 70,000 killed and four million refugees, Hezbollah and Israel have now taken Syria as their battleground. After meeting Putin and holding nighttime discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Kerry released an innocuous statement that leaves the situation as is: America and Russia have again agreed on the Geneva approach from last June, which calls for talks between the regime and the opposition. Assad’s future remains in dispute: the Americans want him out while the Russians support him.
The Russians and Americans have also said that they will convene an international conference by the end of this month that will bring about negotiations between the opposition and the regime, but no specific time or agenda have been announced. Kerry does not believe that Assad can take part in a transition to democracy after the mass killing of innocent civilians, while Lavrov thinks that an opposition victory would break Syria into ethnic cantons.
And so the routine of horrors goes on. The regime continues with its ethnic cleansing, now in the village of al-Baida and the city of Banias, where the Alawite shabiha slaughtered men, women, and children with knives and the survivors fled.
The American refusal to provide military aid for the democratic opposition has contributed greatly to the internal chaos. Al-Qaeda-affiliates, though in the minority, are able to set the tone. They unwittingly supply the regime with grist for propaganda, for Assad can argue that he is fighting a joint al-Qaeda–Zionist plot. The fact that the US line is unclear, while Iran and Russia continue to arm the regime, sows confusion within the Syrian opposition.
This state of things is evident in the fact that soon after Moaz al-Khatib was elected to head the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition Forces, he quit. He had agreed to enter negotiations with the regime, but the latter had responded by rocketing civilians. When the West nonetheless remained unwilling to supply arms, al-Khatib resigned. Until today no replacement has been found.
The world’s hands-off policy has led to general confusion that also affects nearby countries. Iraq is on the verge of civil war between Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, and Shiites in the south, while Iran stirs the kettle. Lebanon is split between the supporters and opponents of Assad. The Syrian regime seeks to built an Alawite state, some of the rebels in the north dream of a Sunni emirate, and the democratic opposition gropes in the dark. For fear of the turmoil in Syria, Turkey has smoothed things out with Israel after the troubles of the Marmara affair, while achieving reconciliation with its Kurdish minority.
The Israeli bombardment does not contribute to regional stability, nor even to the security of Israel itself. It is the latest chapter in a lengthy process, which began when Israel stuck its hand into strife-ridden Lebanon in the early 1980’s, supporting the Maronites, an act that would spawn the Hezbollah and years of bloodshed. Syria’s fate lies solely in the hands of its citizens, who have demonstrated their readiness to risk their lives for democracy and social justice. That is the reason why they first went into the streets to demonstrate, and that is the reason they keep on fighting.
A democratic Syria is the historical imperative dictated by the Arab Spring. The hour demands that the world spare further suffering by supplying arms to the opposition and providing safe zones for civilians, so that the Syrian people can fulfill its right to peace and freedom.