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Will Israel enter the Syrian civil war?

Yesterday, Hezbollah, Lebanon's Islamic resistance movement, responded to recent Israeli aggression by attacking Israeli occupation forces on patrol in the south of Lebanon.

The operation came in response to an Israeli attack on Syria ten days prior, which killed several Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, along with an Iranian general. Among the dead was Jihad Mughniyah (son of the assassinated Hezbollah military mastermind Imad Mughniyah).

At the time, Hezbollah announced that it would not let the attack go unpunished and yesterday it fulfilled that promise. The Hezbollah response hit nine Israeli occupation soldiers, killing two of them.

The operation took place in the Shebaa Farms, a small section of Lebanese territory that is still illegally occupied by Israel. Although the forces of the Hezbollah-led Lebanese resistance chased Israel out of the vast majority of south Lebanon, forcing a disorderly retreat in 2000, the Shebaa Farms have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, and remains one of a few Lebanese territories occupied by Israel.

The farms are adjacent to the Golan Heights, the section of south-western Syria which has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967 (and was later illegally annexed).

Israel replied to the precise Hezbollah operation against military targets in a typically brutal and malicious fashion, firing into several areas of south Lebanon indiscriminately. The UN says that the Israeli fire killed one UNFIL peacekeeping soldier, a Spanish national.

While this may have been indiscriminate recklessness on Israel's part, it should be noted that Israel has a long history of deliberately targeting UN facilities, often those acting as shelters for fleeing Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, as well as deliberately targeting UN personnel – as in the vicious 1996 Qana massacre. Following the massacre, which killed more than 100 civilians and UN peacekeepers,  a UN report concluded that it was "unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of technical and/or procedural errors".

After the Hezbollah operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly threatened Lebanese civilians with massive indiscriminate bombardment of entire neighbourhoods, as it did in Gaza in the summer: "To everyone who is trying to challenge us at the northern border, I recommend for them look [sic] what happened there, not far from the city of Sderot, in Gaza." Israel's racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened Israel would strike Lebanon in a "forceful and disproportionate manner".

Hezbollah has been operational in Syria for some time now. As part of the complex civil war there, the movement has been fighting in support of its ally, the Syrian regime. Bashar Al-Assad's government has long been an ally of Hezbollah, allowing and facilitating Iranian arms shipments to pass through its territory. Any change of government in Damascus led by the vicious anti-Shia sectarians that run most elements of the armed rebel groups would certainly cut these ties, leaving Hezbollah at a distinct military disadvantage in any future war with Israel.

Hezbollah and its Iranian allies were operational in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, as part of their fight against what it calls takfiris and terrorists – fanatic sectarian armed groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Israel saw its opportunity and attacked Hezbollah and Iran while it could. But Israel has taken advantage of the chaos of the civil war over the last four years, to bomb Syria, apparently striking arms shipments that were supposedly being sent to Hezbollah.

Israel has already been involved in the Syrian civil war on the lower level of intelligence and support: along with other western spook agencies, it has fostered contact with certain rebel groups (as Patrick Cockburn notes in his new book). It seems unlikely right now that Israel would risk more direct involvement in a war which could spiral out of control.

While it is true that aggressive military action, and anti-Arab blood-letting would win Netanyahu many votes in the election set to take place in March, on balance it seems likely that Israel would rather let "both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death… As long as this [civil war] lingers, there's no real threat from Syria", as a former Israeli consul general put it in 2013.

If civil war can be fostered and encouraged in the Arab world, the imperialist powers and their regional puppets have less to worry about.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

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

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