‘Existential Struggle’

05.07.13

Israel Bombs Syria: Nation a ‘Battlefield for the World’s Powers’

The rebels weren’t behind those fireballs. As the international community refuses to officially intervene, Mike Giglio on how regional players are stepping up their own involvement in Syria.

As Israeli jets bombed Damascus on Sunday, Ahmad al-Khatib stood awestruck in his apartment. Two miles away, from heavily fortified Mount Qasioun, fireballs lit the predawn sky as the blasts shattered Khatib’s windows and rattled his chest. He knew right away that these weren’t rebel attacks. “We haven’t been able to do anything like that since the revolution started,” the opposition activist and aid worker says.

The airstrikes hit key military installations and were the second by Israel in as many days. Khatib was happy to see the Syrian Army dealt such a heavy blow. But the attacks also hammered home a grim reality—that the Syrian revolution, which started as a homegrown protest movement, is now a “battlefield for the world’s powers,” as Khatib puts it, echoing many in the opposition.

“They’re all looking out for their own interests in Syria,” Khatib says, “which makes Syrian blood a secondary concern.”

The conflict in Syria, analysts say, looks likely to continue this way: regional players stepping up their own involvement, even as the international community refuses to officially intervene. Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, says Syria’s neighbors are more anxious than ever—and increasingly likely to step in to pursue their own ends. “This is becoming an existential struggle,” Shaikh says.

In the aftermath of this weekend’s attacks, Israeli officials made clear that they weren’t meant to help the rebels, telegraphing media comments to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the aim was to protect Israel, not weaken him in the civil war. The strikes reportedly targeted stores of long-range missiles around the capital that Israel believed would be transferred to Hezbollah, its sworn enemy across the border in Lebanon. Israel has long painted any attempt to transport such weapons to the Shiite militant group, a close Assad ally, as a clear red line, which resulted in a previous Israeli strike in January.

“They’re all looking out for their own interests in Syria,” Khatib says, “which makes Syrian blood a secondary concern.”

Fears that the war will draw in outside forces have already been confirmed. Just last week Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that Hezbollah and Iran, which are both suspected of aiding Assad, would never let their key ally fall to the rebels. And one of the most effective rebel fighting groups announced last month that it’s allied with al Qaeda.

The countries bordering Syria, meanwhile, have all been shaken by the conflict—which has fueled sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Iraq, burdened Turkey and Jordan with refugees, and raised Israeli fears of rebel extremism, on top of the threat that the chaos will embolden Hezbollah and Iran.

The Obama administration has cited this web of entanglements as a prime reason for its reluctance to intervene in Syria, warning of unintended regional consequences and the dangers of empowering the rebellion’s extremist factions. And analysts believe that America will continue to address Syria in slow and measured steps, likely increasing its support for the opposition, which has so far focused on non-lethal aid, in hopes of pushing Assad to the negotiating table.

Proponents of more forceful U.S. action, however, saw the Israeli strikes as evidence of how quickly the situation might spiral out of control. Shaikh, of the Brooking Doha Center, says the Obama administration is “playing with fire” by letting the conflict drag on. “President Obama is trying to contain the situation. And yet he and others are learning that this is not a situation that can be contained. It has to be resolved one way or another,” he says. “The whole logic of war can take over very quickly.”

David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says America appears to have given Israel a “yellow light” on Syria, agreeing to let it act on red-line issues such as arms transfers to Hezbollah. And Israel seems to have carried out the strikes on its own accord.

Neither Israel nor Assad, however, seems willing to let the situation escalate further—and Pollock notes that Syria’s other neighbors, wary of wading too far into the conflict, will likely keep their near-term involvement restrained and “discreet,” continuing to provide humanitarian aid and covert military support. “I don’t think this leads to an implosion scenario where they get sucked in to Syria in a big way,” he says. “Nobody really has the stomach for it.”

It has become conventional wisdom among many rebels, meanwhile, that the piecemeal support on both sides of the war is intended to keep it going, not bring it to an end—and some saw the Israeli attacks along these lines. The international community, says Abu Omar al-Jourani, a commander with the Jund Allah battalion in Damascus, “wants to keep Syria in chaos. They are trying to wear out both sides.”