Israeli strikes illuminate nuances of Syrian conflict

13 May 2013

By the end of last week, Israel had launched two chirurgical strikes against Syria, targeting factories and convoys connected to chemical and other ‘game-changing’ weapons directed against the Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shiite party supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.

These strikes were the first signs of a potential regionalization of the conflict. Kais Firro, a professor at Haifa University, told Al Monitor afterwards: “Syria is at the crux of a major battle. This is more than just some army fighting against rebels.” Indeed, even if the war has not been effectively regionalized yet, the conflict nonetheless involves a plethora of important actors.

Bashar Al-Assad’s troops have recovered their military strength over these past weeks, and can now count on help from Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iraqis Islamists Shiite militias. And though they have stopped the regime’s military progression, Israel’s strikes may have paradoxically “played nicely into the hands of Assad and the Syrian regime” according to Professor Kais Firro, given that they feed into Assad’s discourse of a Western and Zionist conspiracy, therein delegitimizing the popular revolt. As a consequence, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has sent a message of solidarity and full and unlimited support to Damascus, promising political, military, and economic backing.

However there remains another interesting international element in this conundrum: Russia still blocks the Security Council as a veto-member within the UN, and instead argues for negotiations with the regime. Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student, Dr George Joffe, a member of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, opined: “There are two solutions to this crisis. A military one that would certainly involve the evolution of a civil war towards a regional conflict. And a peaceful one, which necessarily implies negotiations with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.The attitude adopted by Western powers has been a hindrance for negotiations, partly because of a unanimous refusal to understand the Russian stance.” If this week’s Kerry-Putin meeting has led, as suggested, to the planning of an international conference to find a political solution to Syria, there have sadly been few signs of a decisive change in one camp or the other.

Meanwhile the behaviour of Erdogan’s Turkey has also been starkly ambigious, denouncing Assad’s regime of “genocide” on the one hand, and condemning the Israeli attacks on the other. Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have also been dragged in into this conflict as well, with Dr Joffe explaining, “In Lebanon, the conflict has already spilled over particularly in the north where Alawi and Sunni are in conflict. In Iraq there is a political radicalisation of the population because of the crisis. And Jordan has been dragged in into the conflict partly because of Saudi Arabia and US influence.”

On the other side, Western countries led by the United States still hesitate to enter the conflict. Obama’s ‘red-line’ policy has almost pushed the US into the conflict but the use of chemical weapons has yet to be proven – in part because of the impossibility for UN representatives to analyse the situation on the ground. While, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that arming the rebels is still an option, according to Kais Firro, “They’re already arming them, not directly, but indirectly. Do Qatar or Saudi Arabia manufacture arms? Where do the weapons come from? The United States give the green light, and enormous quantities of weapons arrive.”

There is little doubt that Israel’s attacks on Syria have changed the dynamic of the crisis. However, despite these changes, Dr Joffe argues that the Syrian authorities still “cannot directly confront Israel.” It is worth noting though the underlying complexities that have been brought to the surface as a result of last week’s attacks, as well as the number of actors playing this game of shadows. With a climbing death toll that has already surpassed 70,000, all eyes remain focused on Syria and its neighbours.

Basile Roze

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