On January 30, 2013, an Israeli strike inside Syria reportedly hit a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons heading to Lebanon according to Israeli and western news agencies. According to Syrian state media, the Israeli strike targeted a military research facility.
After the news broke, many questions were raised: What was the target of the Israeli attack? Was the strike in Syrian or Lebanese territory? Did a strike even happen? Was this the start of a regional war?
As is usually the case with attention-grabbing events in Syria, multiple interests groups inside the country quickly proclaimed the strike as a vindication of their respective positions.
But as days turned to weeks, it seemed the Israeli strike had less to do with events inside Syria and more to do with domestic Israeli politics.
The Strike Vindicates All
There were several narratives that emerged from inside Syria about the strike.
For those who found themselves, willingly or unwillingly, aligned with the Syrian regime, the strike was perceived as another indicator of a sophisticated conspiracy to declaw the Syrian state and thereby weaken resistance toward Israel.
That the strike was met with only muted outrage from many in the Syrian opposition, as well as countries inside and outside the region, seemed to substantiate this logic.
For those who opposed the Syrian government, the regime’s failure to respond to the attacks – beyond the usual wearisome claims about waiting for an appropriate “time and place” to act against Israel – demonstrated its inherent weakness and unwillingness to match flowery rhetoric with action.
Prominent commentator and academic As’ad AbuKhalil perfectly encapsulated this view in a blog post for Al-Akhbar English:
And the Syrian regime, despite its pathetic lack of a response to past acts of Israeli aggression against Syria, is now in a more difficult position. If it does not act in response to Israeli aggression, it will be quite embarrassing for the regime to justify the use of fighter jets and helicopter gunships in its internal conflict (for purposes of regime preservation), but not for defending Syrian territory against Israeli attacks. The Syrian army, which has by and large remained loyal to the regime, could face major defections in protest against this regime reluctance. But if the regime responds to Israeli attacks, Israel can inflict severe damage to the military power of the regime, which is needed to protect the regime. Either way, the regime could suffer, although it would change the contours of the conflict if it were to respond against Israel in a major way.
Interestingly enough, this position was echoed by Elliot Abrams, an American diplomat and extreme ally of Israel, who recently wrote about the attack and compared it to a previous Israeli strike on Syrian territory in 2007.
The Israeli assessment of Syria’s likely reaction was correct. The Israelis believed that if they and we spoke about the strike, Assad might be forced to react to this humiliation by trying to attack Israel. If, however, we all shut up, he might do nothing—nothing at all. He might try to hide the fact that anything had happened. And with every day that passed, the possibility that he would acknowledge the event and fight back diminished. That had been the Israeli theory, and the Israelis knew their man.
Indeed, the Syrian regime did not respond militarily to the recent strike, just as it failed to respond in 2007. This lack of an armed response is quite incredible when one remembers how quickly the Syrian military was able to shoot down Turkish planes in June 2012.
This begs the question – is the powerful security and military apparatus in Syria truly for the benefit of confronting imperialism and Zionism, or, as AbuKhalil suggests, simply a tool for regime preservation? The answer, of course, depends on where you stand on the conflict inside Syria.
For those opposed to the Assad regime, the lack of a Syrian response to the usual Israeli belligerence continues the pattern of non-confrontation, and provides further evidence that the regime’s rhetoric of resisting Zionism and western imperialism is illusory. For the Syrian opposition, the attack was counter-productive and in fact shored up more nationalist support for the Syrian regime.
At the same time, those who support the Assad regime view the Israeli attack as confirmation of a conspiracy to weaken the ‘resistance axis’, and justify the lack of a Syrian response to the strike as a matter of political pragmatism.
An Israeli Affair
At first blush, events inside Syria may seem to explain the Israeli strike. After all, with the on-going instability inside the country, the time appears ripe for Israel to attack a government that has historically claimed to oppose the Israeli state.
While this explanation is convenient, other issues are clearly at play. Since its inception in 1970, the Assad regime’s relationship with Israel has gone from full-blown war to détente. The Israelis feel comfortable with the regime, and understand how it functions.
Alteration of the Syrian government, by contrast, offers new challenges and uncertainties. While a new Syrian government may not embrace resistance as before, it may also challenge the Israelis more aggressively. It is a risk the Israeli government is not willing to take, especially given the region’s recent volatility.
Even if Israel was interested in weakening the Syrian regime, bombing a government arms convoy seems unlikely to dent the regime’s capabilities, nor does it otherwise justify the risks associated with military action. There must be more to the story. The timing of the strike may offer a clue as to the real motivations behind the attack.
Eight days prior to the strike, the Israeli legislative elections concluded with the ultra-right wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eking out a bitter victory.
Despite winning the majority of parliamentary seats, Netanyahu’s party suffered losses, particularly due to the surprising growth of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which came in second with 19 seats.
Among the Western press, Lapid is presented as a foil to the ultra-right wing Netanyahu. For many Western media outlets, the aggressiveness and racism from Netanyahu and other right wing Israeli politicians has become increasingly troubling. Dubbed the ‘Israeli center,’ the very photogenic Lapid leads a party that is supposedly representative of Israel’s secular center. Lapid and his party are, however, nothing short of a chimera or as the Israeli historian, Tom Segev, called him, “a kind of anti-Orthodox Likud lite.”
Shortly after parliamentary elections concluded, tensions surfaced between Netanyahu and Lapid over controlling positions in the new coalition government. The prime minister position was a particular source of dispute, causing tensions and delays.
The Israeli strike on Syria, and sensational prophesies about a chemical weapons response from the Syrian regime, seemed to work in favor of Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. For Netanyahu and his peers, the strike offered another opportunity to demonstrate their ‘toughness’ to the Israeli public. As any observer of Israeli politics knows, war and adventurous military strikes are common tools used by Israeli leaders to streamline and shore up popular support. Indeed the bet appears to have paid off, as the new Israeli cabinet remains dominated by the right-wing.
The strike on Syria is no different. It did not harm the Syrian regime’s military capabilities. It did not help the armed opposition groups fighting against the regime. It was not comprehensive, or followed by more strikes. It was, however, driven by domestic Israeli politics.
Conclusion: The Need for Patient Analysis
Admittedly, like most things relating to Syria these days, it is hard to have much confidence about analysis on the Israeli strike. While thoughtful critique should continue, it is important to recognize this fact and to take time to reflect critically on events before passing judgment.
Historical truth is, however, always a good place to start.
It is an indisputable fact that the Syrian regime has been part and parcel of the region’s system of control, with other dictatorships and monarchies desperately trying to hold back the wave of people power demanding self-determination and liberty from domestic and foreign oppression. While its relationship with Israel may seem antagonistic, for decades Syria has been a reliable partner, unwilling to enter into any military dispute with Israel. It is a relationship the Israelis covet and are fearful of losing. The strike must be assessed against this backdrop. It is the only way to come as close to the truth as possible.
*Yazan al-Saadi is a staff writer at Muftah.