Israel’s two air raids on targets inside Syria last weekend have ushered in a new phase of the Syrian civil war, indirectly embroiling not only other regional powers but global superpowers too. Israel’s much vaunted confidence that it will not be harmed in retaliation — because Bashar Al Assad is bogged down in the civil war — may prove to be a serious miscalculation.
Israel claims that the long-range missiles destroyed in its strikes were intended for Hezbollah. It seems unlikely that Al Assad’s regime would be exporting the very weapons it has been using on its own people, and at such a crucial point in the civil war. Israel’s intervention, then, is, as Al Assad himself put it, a “declaration of war” on his regime.
America’s initial response was as one might have expected, affirming that the Obama regime “is fully supportive of Israel’s air strikes”, which utilised US-supplied war planes and weapons. By implication, then, Israel’s foremost ally, the US, had, at that point, also ‘declared war’ on Al Assad.
Russia and Iran, meanwhile remained stalwart in their support of Al Assad. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi paid a lightning visit to Damascus to underline Tehran’s full support in the face of Israel’s aggression.
Faced with a full-scale standoff with Moscow and Tehran, the Obama administration despatched US Secretary of State John Kerry for a conciliatory meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday. At the resulting press conference, Kerry distanced Washington from its former, more bellicose stance towards Al Assad and endorsed the Russian Foreign minister’s preference to secure a meeting between the rebels and the regime, with a view to rapprochement and negotiation.
The US is reluctant to become militarily engaged in the Syrian crisis for a number of reasons: It cannot guarantee the outcome of a new war which it can ill-afford and with the resignation of Muath Al Khatib, there is no obvious figurehead to unite and represent the increasingly fractured opposition.
The point where Russian and US concerns truly dovetail, however, is over the momentous rise of extremist Islamist groups as a result of the conflict. Russia has its own Islamist problems in several restive states, including Chechnya and Dagestan. The US is still smarting from the Boston marathon bombings.
International and domestic jihadists in Syria are gathered under the Jabhat Al Nusra umbrella. Al Nusra recently pledged allegiance to Al Qaida leader Ayman Al Zawahiri and has seemingly taken on board the mistakes made by Al Qaida in Iraq leader, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.
Under Al Zarqawi, extremists committed atrocities and terrorised the population with a fanatical interpretation of Islam. Al Nusra and like-minded groups in Syria are adopting a more restrained approach, trying to win hearts and minds in the areas they control by establishing Sharia courts and offering security, medicines and even food.
Al Nusra is well-equipped, disciplined and moneyed. The Guardian has reported that whole battalions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are defecting to the organisation en masse. Fighters from other countries are also attracted to join Al Nusra which, reportedly, pays their fares.
With the jihadi element rapidly becoming the most powerful force in the opposition, it is unsurprising that Washington appears to be backing down from military intervention, moving swiftly from ‘red lines’ to ‘white flag’.
If Washington endorses the participation of the regime in talks with the opposition, it offers Al Assad a new legitimacy and the political equation changes dramatically, not just for Syria but for the region.
Meanwhile, Israel’s weekend air raids remain unanswered.
Al Assad’s lack of action against Tel Aviv to date has made him look weak and foolish. Even the opposition are criticising him for not striking back. It is possible that Al ssad will launch an attack on Israel, preferring to fall in a more noble battle than one against his own people, but he is a wily fox, and direct aggression is not the only means at his disposal.
Israel has other enemies who could do Al Assad’s job for him. Hence his statement on Tuesday that the Golan Front is now open on the Syrian side for Palestinian resistance and jihadi fighters to strike Israel. On the very same day the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade took four Filipino UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeepers hostage in Golan.
On Thursday, Al Assad asserted that he will “give Hezbollah everything”.
Israel may find itself besieged simultaneously on two fronts (Golan and southern Lebanon) by two resistance movements ideologically opposed to each other. Like Russia and America, Hezbollah and the Salafist jihadis find themselves unexpectedly (and temporarily) on the same side, where ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is clearly concerned that the Occupied Territories may also experience unrest, responding to Al Assad’s announcement that the Golan front is open with a statement that resistance is not started by the ‘push of a button’.
I disagree, believing that opening this front, with or without a decision by Al Assad, will push hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians and Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan to take up arms again to face the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
What has hindered the resistance in recent years has not been lack of will, but the collusion of Israel’s Arab neighbours and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) itself with Israel’s security and intelligence forces.
Israel may have produced one provocation too many with these latest raids, enraging its enemies, frightening its friends, and upsetting the fragile balance of regional power.
Whoever plays with fire one day gets their fingers burned.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.