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Why doesn't Syria retaliate against Israel?

January 24, 2014 at 10:30 am

Israel’s recent attacks on more than forty locations around Damascus raise many questions about their timing, motives and goals. More puzzling, perhaps, has been the reaction of the Assad regime, which has tried to place the attacks in the context of the wider conflict between the government and people in Syria by trying to make them look as if they are serving the interests of the opposition groups.

This suggests that the regime is trying to use the attacks as an excuse to justify its claim that it is fighting a war against a “Zionist American conspiracy, which supports terrorists”. Thus has it also justified the massacres and crimes against civilians across the country. The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to maintain Syria’s national dignity and sovereignty by retaliating against the Israeli aggression to prevent any repetition, but the regime does nothing.

Israel claims that it is acting to stop any advanced missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it has a history of bombing targets in Syria. After signing the disengagement agreement in Geneva on May 31st, 1974, it hit Syrian army targets in Lebanon, but on October 5th, 2003, Israeli warplanes bombed “Ein Alsaheb” camp near Damascus, describing it as a training camp for the Palestinian Jihad group. That was the first Israeli military action on Syrian territory for twenty years.

On 15th of July, 2006, Israeli fighter jets bombed a site on the Lebanon-Syria border occupied by a Syrian army unit. A year later it bombed what it claimed was a nuclear reactor site under construction in Deir Alzor.

The Syrian government has not responded to any of these attacks on its sovereignty, opting to limit itself to strong statements condemning Israel, including the caveat that “Syria reserves the right to respond at the right time and place”. Subsequent inaction is defended by the claim that “Israel is trying to drag Syria into a war”, code for “the government is alert and won’t fall into an Israeli trap”.

Such inaction by the regime in Damascus can be explained very easily by the fact that the Israeli attacks were not meant to overthrow the government and what is of prime importance to Bashar Al-Assad is to maintain power and keep his regime intact. As such, attacks on the people of Syria and the country itself can be tolerated as long as the regime is not threatened. The same logic applies to his destructive war against his own people for more than two years; he is defending his regime, not Syria.

The people of Syria are reduced to seeing the money they pay out of their food allowance to support the Syrian Army in defence of their homeland being used instead to massacre and heap indignities upon them. The army looked to by the people for protection has been turned against them by a regime desperate to preserve itself.

When the Israelis attack, the people of Syria have mixed feelings. They are happy to see one less tank or army battalion able to fight against their own people but are saddened that it is the old enemy, Israel, which is inflicting the damage.

Most Syrians now accept that their government is being allowed by the West to stay in power because it has turned the occupied Golan Heights – Syrian territory – into a buffer zone which protects Israel. They also believe that the Israeli attacks give cover to the regime’s sectarian massacres of Syrian citizens. This has been reinforced by statements from Israel to the effect that its bombing of Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah are not intended to overthrow the Assad regime.

Israel’s hostility demonstrates that it will stop at nothing to protect its own interests and security. Underlying all of its attacks is the basic intention to weaken Syria’s military capabilities so that any regime in Damascus now or in the future is unable to threaten Israel in any way.

Iran’s reaction has been to offer to train the Syrian army. Few people have any illusions that this will be to fight against the Israelis, though. Instead, it is clear that Tehran is looking to prepare the army for more sectarian attacks against Sunni opposition groups inside Syria.

Russian rhetoric is also tied to Israeli security. It is almost certain that its protestations would have been louder if the attacks against Syria had come from foreign intervention other than from the Israelis. Crossing the red line of criticism of Israel is something that Russian politicians share with their US counterparts; neither are willing to go over it, which helps to explain Washington’s consensus with Moscow on this issue.

It should be obvious, therefore, that the Syrian regime no longer cares for attacks on the territorial sovereignty of the country and is concentrated on tackling internal opposition. This gives Israel a free hand to attack at will in its own interests, safe in the knowledge that it will neither be criticised in the international arena nor will it face any retaliation from the regime in Damascus.

The author is a Syrian writer and researcher. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on Al Jazeera net, 10 May 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.