The irony of Bashar al-Assad's latest threats against Israel must be lost on him. The embattled Syrian president, who seems to be regaining some ground in his fight against a two-year-old insurgency that's claimed more than 80,000 lives, said in an interview with a Hezbollah television channel that he'd retaliate against any further strikes by the Jewish state. The warning came amid unconfirmed claims by Assad that he'd received the first shipments of powerful Russian anti-aircraft missiles—weapons Israel says it'll attack if they arrive. But, in the interview,Assad added a new wrinkle to his promised retaliation:
“In fact, there is clear popular pressure to open the Golan front to resistance,” Mr. Assad said. The Syrian government, he said, had received “many Arab delegations wanting to know how young people might be enrolled to come and fight Israel.”
That's probably a hollow threat: the last thing Assad needs now would be a war with perhaps the region's most powerful military. But it's worth noting his bluster about opening up a front that's been quiet for nearly four decades because, while Assad's continued his pattern of playing up his anti-Israel credentials, he's actually rapidly losing his pro-Palestinian cachet.
Recent headlines brought confirmation that the Palestinian anti-Israel terror group Hamas's ties to Iran—both Assad and Hezbollah's patron—had come under such strain that Iran cut off its huge financial support.
The British Telegraph reported today that Hamas's deputy foreign minister in Gaza said in an interview that relations were "bad" between the group and its former patrons. A year and a half ago, Hamas's leadership bolted Damascus, its erstwhile headquarters-in-exile, amid support for its co-sectarians, the mostly-Sunni Syrian rebels. Things only deteriorated from there, and the Hamas official told the Telegraph the group had lost millions per month in funding: "For supporting the Syrian revolution, we lost very much." He also said military cooperation between the two had ceased.
Sure, Assad maintains his cozy alliance with the anti-Israel group Hezbollah. The co-sectarians are practically joined at the hip, at this point, with the Lebanese Shia militia furiously backing Assad to the point of sending troops into Syria to fight rebels and even hold territory on his behalf. But Hezbollah's a Lebanese group, not a Palestinian one. Amid its risky intervention in Syria, Hezbollah's losing—or lost—it's broad support across the region. A Pew survey released last year indicated that Hezbollah, amid growing involvement in Syria, declined to single digit favorability ratings in every Arab and Muslim country surveyed. The exception was Lebanon itself, but even there, and even among its Shia base, anxieties about involvement in Syria are rife. Even Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have become disenchanted with the group's Syria stance: some refugees there went so far as to burn aid from Hezbollah.
The rifts represent not only sectarian splits—though they seem to be very much that—but unease about support for a dictator amid a series of uprisings in the Arab world against them (whatever one may think of the outcomes of those rebellions). The developments put the lie to what was once a top selling point for Iran and Hezbollah across the region: their support for the Palestinian cause. As Assad's latest threats show, being against Israel and for the Palestinians aren't always the same thing.