Will Assad start a war against Israel in order to try to unify all those fighting him against a common enemy?
Academic research has explored in depth the factors leading to the wars that broke out between nations in previous centuries, both in order to understand why wars take place and to develop ways of predicting nascent wars by “connecting the dots” between the signs signalling an approaching conflagration. Since the signals are clearly directly connected to the relations between the countries involved in a war, the literature points out the connection between internal problems affecting a state and the desire of its leaders to initiate a war with other countries. The literature also lists war-delaying factors, foremost of which is the high price of military and civilian fatalities and the damage to the country’s infrastructure.
Syria is no exception to the rule in terms of academic theory, since the reasons the regime was pressured into past wars were always a mixture of internal and external factors. The external cause for the ongoing state of war with Israel was the very fact of Israel’s existence, never recognized by the Syrian regime. The encouragement to attack Israel came from the USSR while Israel was supported by the West. Add to that the desire to be granted a position of power in pan-Arab leadership and the need to erase the humiliating Syrian defeats in 1948,1967, 1973 and 1982 at the hands of the Zionists.
Syrian media have always played a part in the country’s war effort, adding the battle for the army’s morale and that of the general population to the one waged with conventional weaponry, so that the people remain willing to suffer the sights of war and continue fighting despite injuries suffered by soldierrs and citizens. Syria’s media are controlled by the regime, which gives them the messages they are expected to deliver to the public. This fact allows the researcher to know what the feelings of the groups leading the country are at any given time.
The factors that prevented war from breaking out in the past were mainly the damage to the army and the country’s infrastructure, but also the possibility that another defeat by Israel would bring more humiliation to the regime. Today, when social networks allow everyone to express his opinion freely, Syria’s leadership knows that the battle for the hearts of the population will not be won through the Syrian media, because every Arab – in Syria and outside of it – knows that its reliability is limited and that its journalists cannot express themselves freely.
In the past, one of the main internal reasons that pushed the Assads, father and son, to declare war on Israel was their desire to create an external threat that would cause the Syrians – especially the opposition – to put their differences aside and join Assad’s fight against the “Zionist enemhy threatening all of us.” Today, with Syria torn between the rebel regime and the areas still under ISIS control, it is far from certain that a war with Israel would bring the rebels and ISIS to stop attacking Assad, and definitely not to the point where instead of attacking Assad, they join him in a war against Israel,
Despite the losses and damage sustained by the opposition to Assad since Russia entered the fray, and despite the fact that they too are light years away from recognizing Israel’s right to exist, they will not desist from fighting Assad. In fact, over the last few days, the rebels have intensified their battle for Damascus because of their defeats in other arenas, mainly in Aleppo and Homs. A war between Assad and Israel might cause the rebels to take advantage of the regular army’s preoccupation with fighting Israel to score some victories. After suffering close to half a million fatalities in six years of fighting, some of the rebels might even prefer that Israel finish off Assad, not for love of Israel but due to their hatred of the despotic dictator. In sum, a war with Israel will not weaken the desire of Assad’s enemies to be rid of him.
Once, the external reason for war to break out was pressure exerted by the USSR in its desire to defeat the USA and Europe on a Middle Eastern battlefield. Today, it is far from certain that Russia wants a war between Syria and Israel, partly because of the minor role the West plays in today’s Middle Eastern politics and partly because Putin does not want to force Trump to have to show active and obvious support for Israel, Putin is aware that the US sent fighters – “boots on the ground” – to the war being waged against ISIS. He realizes that Obama’s non-interventionist policies are over and he has no wish to find himself opposite the USA in a war between Syria and Israel in which he will be forced to support Syria and oppose Israel.
How great Putin’s fears of Israeli military technology are is not clear to me, but the downing of a Russian SA-5 missile last week by an Israeli “arrow” missile is enough to give the Russian army pause and raise doubts about the feasibility of war between Russian and Israeli weapons. It looks as though the Russian army, which found it very difficult to overcome the light weapons in the hands of the Syrian rebels, is not overjoyed at the thought of a direct confrontation with Israeli miliary technology.
There is also an economic situation behind the scenes, the possibility that Israel wil be marketing gas to Europe on a massive scale in the near future, causing Russia significant economic difficulty, as Europe may decide to do without Russian gas. To sum up the Russian issue, it does not seem to be in Russia’s best interests to bring about a struggle between Syria and Israel, because that would only complicate Syria’s internal problems even more and cause Russia’s attempts to have the two sides reach some kind of agreement, to fail. Thursday, March 23, is when the two sides were to begin their fifth round of talks.
There are other powers functioning in Syria. The list includes Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, as well as Afghans. They have their own interests, far removed from those of Russia and Assad. In my estimation, Iran and Hezbollah want to involve Israel in the war in Syria so as to show their people, that is, the Iranians and Lebanese, many of whom are against their country’s involvement in Syria, that there is no choice, despite the high price in casualties and equipment, They could then claim that this is not only a war against the rebels and ISIS, it is a campaign against the “threatening Zionist entity,”
Iran wants to drag Syria into a war with Israel which would be in essence a war against Trump, whose mettle the Iranians would like to test, along with his loyalty to Israel and his hostility towards Iran. They expect Russia to join the war while the US remains outside it, so as to avoid getting embroiled in a regional war and in addition, to avoid a confrontation that would damage the relations between Trump and Putin.
Hezbollah is also interested in a war with Israel in order to prove to its detractors in Lebanon and the Arab-Islamic world that its weapons, especially its rocket arsenal, are meant to fight Israel and not “our Syrian brothers.” In order to prove to itself, its fighters and its Iranian supporters that despite the loss of manpower Hezbollah suffered in Syria, the army is as strong as ever and that the northern Shiite alliance that has coalesced from iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is continuing to advance towards Israel in order to surround Saudi Arabia with a southern Shiite flank in Yemen.
The problem with Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is that both could instigate a war against Israel from Syrian territory, with or without the involvement or agreement of Assad’s forces and despite Russian opposition. An Iranian move of this nature would be aimed at pushing Russia into a war where the Kremlin must choose a side, and it is highly unlikely that Russia would support Israel against Iran, after years of cooperation between the two countries, mainly in keeping Assad on as head of the regime. The scenario of a war against Israel waged by Iran and Hezbollah coming from Syria seems far-fetched, but this is, after all, the Middle East.
To sum up the situation, one can say that deterioration leading to a war between Israel and the international mess called Syria could occur, especially if Israel continues to attack Hezbollah positions, the Iranians and the Assad regime there. Another factor may be that Assad feels he has nothing to lose since his country has been destroyed already along with much of its infrastructure, so that Israel will not find that many targets to attack and destroy.
Israel must guard its security interests very carefully, sending all its enemies – large and small, both nations and organizations (let us not forget Hamas in Gaza) – a razor sharp message that is as clear as a noonday sun in the summer, that it will not stand for any compromise of its security. It will act forcefully and with no restraints against anyone who tries to attack it. Only a believable threat of an all out attack can deter the sides fighting in Syria who have shown the world for six years that nothing stops them, not human suffering, not the destruction of infrastructure, and not agreements and understandings. Israel cannot rely on understandings reached with both sides two years ago, one year ago and even a month ago. In Hell, political positions are open to change every given minute.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky, Arutz Sheva English site consultant and op-ed editor.