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In Syria, is The Enemy of an Enemy a Friend?

Jun 05, 2013 Written by  Marc Sabbagh, Guest Contributor

SyriaLast month, Israel allegedly bombed what was believed to be a conventional weapons transfer from the Syrian government to the Hezbollah network in Lebanon, as well as the Jamraya “research facility” which is close to the Lebanese border in Damascus.

While a previous strike by Israel within Syria happened in January, this recent attack occurred in what is arguably the nerve-center of the Bashar al-Assad regime, making it a significant turning point, a calculated risk, and a strong warning – especially in light of President Barack Obama’s wavering “red line” statements.

The strikes show that Israel is prioritizing the Hezbollah threat in Lebanon over a Syria without Assad. Most analysts predict a leadership vacuum post-Assad could make way for extremist groups, like the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front, to increase in numbers or even seize power.

Ironically, the strikes put Israel on the side of some of these extremist groups by default. They may not agree on much else other than the fact that the situation in Syria is unsustainable and that Assad’s time is up, but it begs the question: is the enemy of an enemy a friend?

Will these typically opposing forces in the region be able to unite under a common cause—ending the instability in Syria? Nothing is ever black and white in the Middle East, and while we still do not have all the facts regarding Israel’s strikes and who was involved, the answer appears to be “no.”

The Syrian government and opposition have both condemned Israel’s attacks on Syria, as has the Lebanese President Michael Suleiman. Some may be providing praise under their breath, but the hard-fought, established alliances in the Arab world and domestic interests make budging on the stance of Israel a long shot.

In Lebanon, Suleiman is hoping to uphold a fragile stability domestically while preventing any excuse for Assad to turn his internal conflict into a regional battle. This makes any considerable change in the Lebanese government’s position impossible, especially if Israel used Lebanese air-space for their attacks. Syria’s opposition, on the other hand, may benefit from Israel’s maneuver but is also likely worried about shifting the narrative from an internal uprising against a police state to a greater proxy war between competing regional interests (see the Lebanese civil war).

Some Syrians have already complained that the Israeli strike is shifting attention away from gruesome human rights violations that have occurred in Syria in the coastal areas of Baniyas and Bayda. The Syrian government also is using the strikes to associate Islamic extremist groups with Israel and fault the Syrian opposition. Conspiracies abound.

The Obama administration may be happy to see the Israeli government, which undeniably has direct interests in the Syrian conflict, make a move. The fact is that Syrians and Arabs across the region were in an interesting position to defend an Israeli strike on Arab land—an unprecedented development, and if anything, a public relations move that the U.S. may have needed—but they chose not to.

Israel’s move is important because it erases any doubt that the conflict in Syria can remain an internal popular uprising. Syria is slowly shaping up to be a proxy war à la Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, where competing interests and blurred alliances developed under the banner of a “civil war” that ultimately left everyone a loser.

In Syria, Alawites and other minority populations (including Christians) are hanging onto the Assad regime because they are fearful of what will come after Assad, given the oppression of similar minority groups in Iraq and Egypt. Russia and the United States are reviving a Cold War redux within Syria’s borders, and Kerry’s trip to Russia likely will not advance positive change. Arab Gulf countries are backing Syrian rebels in hopes of financially draining and crumbling the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, with little regard of the extremist forces that could take control after.

And now, Israel is prioritizing immediate domestic interests over long-term considerations, similar to decisions made by all parties involved during Lebanon’s fifteen-year struggle. They are taking a purely strategic approach to the conflict. Meanwhile, the United States has dithered on determining whether it should take a humanitarian approach (which the red line on chemical weapons use really was about) versus a strategic approach, the path most of the international community is currently advancing.

Israel itself has decided. While the United States is trying to put an eraser to its “game-changing” red line of chemical weapons, Israel has defined theirs—preventing Hezbollah from acquiring weapon shipments. In fact, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said nearly four years ago that Israel would not tolerate “game-changing” weapon transfers to Hezbollah.

This stalemate of the broader international community led Israel to make a move—with little consideration of whether it would be seen as an unexpected friend, a convenient enemy, or just a ‘frenemy’.

Marc Sabbagh is a Master of Arts candidate in international affairs at Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC focusing on Middle East studies.

Photo by watchsmart (cc).

Tagged under Syria    Israel    Assad    Hezbollah    Jamraya    Damascus    Assad    Obama    Chemical weapons    Russia   

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