(Personal note: Thanks everyone for the congratulations! Daughter is doing well and of course exhausting, so I will shortly be changing up the posting schedule here to better reflect my reality. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon; this is a fine outlet for me for now, I just need to find a new way to balance it).
Ten years ago, an Israeli bombing in Damascus was international headlines. War is coming, some would intone; international condemnations would be fierce and fast.
But as Syria has now cannibalized itself. A warlord-cum-president has decided to use his decimated legions to empty whatever countryside he must to remain in power. His foes have become precisely as radicalized as he’d hoped in the early months of the war; few were not Sunni supremacists to begin, but most are now.
It’s odd to think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a backburner war, having dominated Middle Eastern thought for decades. But as black flags rise and countries consume themselves, the notion of enemy armies trading fire across the Golan Heights seems quaint.
Ever the opportunists, Israeli elites are using anarchy to snipe their myriad of enemies. This week, the Assadists claimed Israel bombed Damascus airport; the reputed target was a Hezbollah training camp and supply depot. This is not the first time Israel has hit Syria. Most famously, it bombed the country in 2007 to hit an alleged nuclear reactor built with North Korean aid.
Rockets fly to and fro across the Golan Heights; most recently, an Israeli Patriot missile downed a “target” trying to cross into Israeli airspace.
What’s Israel up to in Syria? All signs point to a third tier war buried under the atrocity-laden headlines, hoping to destabilize an overplayed Hezbollah.
First, dispensing with the conspiracy theories
You can’t write about Israel and not bump up against the conspiratorial fringe. As Israel bombs Syria, a very real event, the conspiracy theorists froth up with circumstantial evidence, logical fallacies, and overt anti-Semitism to spin narratives of no value. It makes sense to address at least one of them first.
The conspiracy theory website GlobalResearch.ca sums up the biggest one: that Israel created the Islamic State to destroy Islam. Under this premise, bombing Assad is to weaken him against the Islamic State’s anti-Islam agenda.
As so often, this conspiracy theory relies upon three main pillars: motive equates to guilt, secret networks are endowed with superhuman powers, and specious evidence from questionable sources is mixed with reliable, but circumstantial, evidence. The writer, WashingtonsBlog (no real name attribution), relies on all these conspiratorial tropes.
First is motive equates to guilt. This is critical to the conspiracy theory.
While it is true Israel gains some benefit from the dissolution of Syrian state power, it is also equally true that chaos is major threat. To this point, one needs merely to look to Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war was not a boon to Israel; it produced anarchy that allowed staunchly anti-Israeli forces, like Hezbollah and the PLO, to become major threats. Yes, it took out an organized Arab state and army, but it replaced them with unpredictable factions and sucked Israel into an expensive occupation of the south from 1982-2000.
Beyond that, Assad’s regime was, by 2011, nothing but a paper tiger to Israel. Its Soviet sponsors had vanished; its Russian replacements saw no use in battering Israel. As Iraq buckled, Assad’s Syria focused on staid stability, not Third Way revolutionism. To survive was enough for Bashar al-Assad; his regime could blather about “resistance” for propaganda purposes, but in reality he gained much more from tacit cooperation with Israel. This was true for Israel was well: to shatter Syria was hardly in the national interest, then and now.
Thus the presume motive of the conspiracy is readily undermined: only oversimplified bias can connect those dots.
Another major problem? The conspiracy theorists presume that Israel is superhuman, manipulating Syrians and Muslims against one one another with the aplomb of a James Bond movie. This has several problems: first, if Israel is so good at spycraft, why can’t it break Palestinian resistance? Why does Hamas, implacably anti-Israel, still exist? If Israel can conjure up demons to consume its foes, why has it not yet done so in Gaza?
It’s not that Israeli elites would not jump at the opportunity to install a government in Damascus that would cede it the Heights – it’s that Israel lacks the power to do so. If even the United States, with all its military might, could not achieve a clean regime change in nearby Iraq, why do we presume that Israel, with its much smaller population and military, could do the same in Syria? Israeli power is overhyped; it is a capable warrior-state up against mostly incompetent national armies, making it appear to be stronger than it actually is. But Israel has a bad track record of manipulating neighbors to its benefit – look to Lebanon’s South Lebanon Army to see.
Yet the theory has further to go before its failure is complete. The article lists a number of sources, none of which are very good if you bother to click the links.
The first is a claim that a Free Syrian Army commander admitted to cooperation with Israeli authorities, a claim made in a YouTube “confession” filmed by the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate, in 2014. Suddenly we are meant to believe that al-Qaeda’s video confessions are reliable, and not an attempt by al-Qaeda to undermine the more mainstream FSA back when the FSA was still a force. The Times of Israel reports the kidnapping but has the sense not to trumpet a confession that is quite likely at the barrel of a gun.
The article then cites a Dutch Justice Ministry source claiming ISIS is a Zionist plot – though why the Dutch Justice Ministry would know that is not explained, seeing as it’s not a spy service. But clicking on the link provided in the article reveals that the source – Yasmina Haifi – provides no evidence and actually ends up retracting her statement later on.
Finally, GlobalResearch makes the claim that Israel is supporting the rebellion in order to get permanent control of the Golan Heights – another example of “motive=guilt” think.
Yet the source – generally reliable Haaretz, which is an excellent newspaper to cite whenever you’re arguing with someone who doesn’t believe Israel has a free press – then goes on to explain this deal is offered only by a single FSA source. Moreover, this source claims they’d only swap the Heights for an Israeli-imposed no-fly zone. The article was written in 2014; it’s safe to assume that this conspiracy theory has not been borne out by events.
The real story? Isreal’s war on Hezbollah.
Even before the war, Israel would bomb Hezbollah supply convoys as far afield as Sudan. After the July 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israeli elites understood they could no longer use their conventional power to roll over their most implacable enemies. Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill that summer; rather than annihilating Hezbollah, as Israel hoped, the guerrillas proved they could go toe-to-toe with the vaunted Israeli army. It dented Israel’s image, which was a grave security risk. If so many believe Israel is a hyperpower capable of global manipulation, it’s partially because Israel wants them to.
Prior to the war, Syria was the main supply conduit for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the headquarters for Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and the base for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It had multiple Palestinian refugee camps where insurgents could train and regroup for attacks on Israel. Assad enjoyed the propaganda boost this all provided, allowing him to appear pan-Arabist.
Additionally, Assad’s close relationship with Iran gave Tehran an outpost very close to the Israeli frontier. Prior to the civil war, Israel tried to disrupt these converging forces in Syria through occasional airstrikes, but dared not risk an open war that might threaten its relationship with the United States.
Once the civil war started, however, Assad’s relationship with the Palestinians frayed and then collapsed. Hamas and Assad had a falling out over the mass murder of Sunnis; the increasingly sectarian nature of the war, instigated by Assad, forced Sunni Hamas to distance itself from the regime. The war brought thousands of Iranian troops and Shi’a militia to the country, but
The war brought thousands of Iranian troops and Shi’a militia to the country, but not to the Israeli border; they were, instead, ground up and bled out on the battlefields against indigenous rebels.
Hezbollah had fewer qualms. A fellow Shi’a group, Hezbollah had started its existence fighting Lebanese Sunnis (though not categorically). They entered the civil war in 2012 to try to prop up the tottering Assadists. At the battle of Qusayr, Hezbollah forces helped cut Homs, then a major rebel bastion, from their supply routes in Lebanon.
Yet this was not so much a threat to Israel as an opportunity. Hezbollah had now committed itself to fighting a civil war on Assad’s behalf; it would need rearmament. The chance to disrupt Hezbollah supplies and weaken it back in Lebanon was too great to ignore.
Thus Israel has hit Damascus airport multiple times trying to cut the biggest supply artery to Hezbollah.
Israel balances its unsteady hand
Israeli elites are aware that their country sits on a weak spot. During the Crusades, states could only survive in Palestine with outside support; otherwise, they were conquered by states out of Egypt, Anatolia, or Persia. This rule applies today just as readily as it did during the Middle Ages. Israel must have sponsorship to survive, and it must neutralize hostile factions around it.
It has, thus far, managed to leverage its relationship with the United States to secure treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It’s close to doing the same with the Gulf states. That means it faces down only those outside the American-led regional order: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the myriad of factions in Syria.
Syria’s civil war has been something of a boon for Israel: not only has the last powerful organized Arab state cannibalized itself, but everyone else is dealing with the fallout. Lebanon is burdened by refugees; Iran’s Revolutionary Guards die on Syrian soil. The emergence of Russia as a Middle Eastern power is not worrying; Moscow has warmed quite strongly to Tel Aviv since the end of the Cold War. Even the Islamic State, which as matter of course despises Israel, is too weak to attack, and is anyway being annihilated by Israel’s American sponsors.
That leaves a narrow window to try to run down Hezbollah. The Hamas-Assad split has left Hamas more isolated; there is a reason why Hamas is less willing to attack Israel these days. Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state status in Lebanon makes it the greatest threat on Israeli borders, and its combat record remains impressive. Yet the longer the civil war goes on and the more Hezbollah militia die, the better off Israel will be. Tel Aviv is not yet willing to stir up a major war with so much chaos around it, yet if the civil war ends in the coming year, look for Israel to try to hammer Hezbollah once and for all.