Tuesday’s attack on an IDF patrol in the Golan Heights, and the subsequent punitive strikes by Israel, constitute an important chapter in the history of the new Middle East. The developments signal not only the erosion of the 40-year quiet between Israel and Syria, but also a major change in the complex fabric of relations between Hezbollah and Damascus.
Hafez Assad, father of Syrian President Bashar Assad, must be rolling over in his grave as his son allows Hezbollah to take a dominant role in defending the regime.
Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by a group of officials in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, along with Lebanese Shiite clerics, many of whom received their religious education in Qom, Iran. From the moment it was established, there was no love lost between Hezbollah and Damascus. Hafez al-Assad nurtured the rival Shiite Amal movement, and, beginning in 1987, even sent his tanks to fight Hezbollah directly. For two years, the Syrian army fought against Hezbollah in order to weaken the organization.
Since then, a lot has changed.
The senior Assad did allow Hezbollah to complicate things for Israel in southern Lebanon, but he prevented the transport of sensitive weapons to the terror group. After he passed away in 2000, his son Bashar implemented the opposite policy with respect to Hezbollah. The younger Assad has armed the Shiite organization with every possible rocket, missile and weapon in order to strengthen Syrian deterrence against Israel. Before the civil war, at least, Bashar’s assumption was that Syria might not be able to do anything directly to reclaim the Golan Heights, but Hezbollah could certainly make clear to Israel the price of not reaching a peace accord with Damascus.
For years, Bashar’s Syria assisted Hezbollah — training and equipping it — but was careful not to supply sensitive weapons that would try Israel’s patience. That policy resulted in a large supply of missiles, produced for Hezbollah in Syria but being kept in special storage on Syrian soil, ready for the moment of truth: escalation against Israel.
Now, though, the civil war in Syria has changed the rules of the game.
Syria has become a burden to Hezbollah, not the other way around. When Bashar’s government began to falter, he requested that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mobilize on behalf of the Syrian government, and Nasrallah initially refused. Only after the intervention of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who made it clear that Nasrallah had no other choice, did Hezbollah launch the most complicated mission in its history — saving President Bashar.
The operation meant military action in a foreign state’s territory, against Sunni Muslims, inevitably losing the support and popularity which Hezbollah had enjoyed across the Middle East. Still, the Lebanese Shiite group went through with it, sending thousands of its people to fight in someone else’s war. After losing hundreds of fighters, and having thousands injured, Hezbollah has now become al-Qaeda’s favorite target in the region.
One thing, at least, has worked to Hezbollah’s benefit: Assad is now completely dependent on the organization for survival.
The Syrian Army is unable to change the outcome of the war by itself;Assad needs Hezbollah’s continuous involvement. And the victories, ever since Nasrallah began sending his people to Syria, have indeed come. These began with the battle of Qusair and continued early this week with Yabroud, and on Wednesday with the nearby village of Ras al-Ayn. Hezbollah essentially cleared the corridor along the Lebanese border for Assad, and disrupted the supply lines for jihadist groups operating on either side of the frontier.
This dependence has created a new reality. If in the past Syria perceived Lebanon as its playing field, now Hezbollah views its eastern neighbor that way. Moreover, if in the last decade Damascus used Hezbollah in order to draw Israeli blood, now the Shiite militia uses Syria, or more accurately the Golan Heights, for that end.
Syria’s dependence on Hezbollah forces it to pay a direct price along with the terror group. Damascus is now being asked to transfer the missiles it has been storing in Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Assad allows the group to operate anywhere it chooses, including the Golan Heights.
Giving the green light to Hezbollah to do whatever it wants in Syria could become especially problematic the day after the civil war ends (if that day ever comes), should Hezbollah decide to stay in Syria. That would allow the group to seek to take revenge against Israel, as it has begun trying to do today.
Assad, it should be noted, also has an interest in punishing Israel or making Israel pay for striking Syrian or Hezbollah targets. Still, the potential complications for Assad from the attack on an IDF patrol this week in the Golan are immeasurably more serious than they are for Hezbollah. The Israeli policy of punishment for attacks against its soldiers focuses on Assad, particularly when such attacks are carried out from areas directly or indirectly under his control.
In such cases, Israel prefers to strike Syrian regime targets, and not risk an operation against Hezbollah that could lead to a serious escalation by the terror group. When Israel hits the regime, including Syria’s air force, Assad loses arms that give him an advantage over the rebels. That fact contributes to the widespread feeling among military analysts that Assad is not looking for another escalation against Israel.
The problem, as always, is that it’s almost impossible to know the internal workings of a leader’s mind. Assad has already shown how enigmatic his decision-making process is. The possibility that Assad or one of his subordinates will continue taking actions that lead to a deterioration of the situation with Israel — something that could lead to a wider conflict — cannot be ruled out. It is the very confidence that Assad has gained during the civil war that could lead him to undertake dangerous new adventures in the Golan Heights.