The alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian missiles en route to Hezbollah in Syria over the weekend have left Arab observers conflicted; for while many have been hoping — secretly or publicly — for a decisive military strike against President Bashar Assad, few expected or indeed wished for it to come from Israel.
Until early Sunday’s strikes on military targets near Damascus, conventional wisdom within the Syrian opposition was that Israel secretly supported Assad and was preventing his ouster. A Syrian Muslim Brotherhood official told The Times of Israel last year that Israel was pressuring the US and Russia to prop up Assad. A refugee from Daraa living in Jordan argued that Israel wanted Assad in power, because losing him would mean losing the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, and destabilizing Israel’s quietest border.
Reports to the contrary did little to change this impression. It was Israel which is said to have struck Assad’s nuclear facility under construction near the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor in 2007 and, more recently, Israel reportedly killed an Iranian general en route to Lebanon on Syrian soil. Israel never officially claimed responsibility for those strikes, but former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told CNN as early as May 2012 that Assad’s fall would help Israel by weakening Iran and Hezbollah. Such facts never seem to confuse the skeptics, however.
As the quintessential enemy of the Arab and Islamic world, Israel must be aligned with Assad, went the logic of many domestic Assad opponents. Now, though, Israel’s apparently brazen confrontation with the Assad regime — while many Arab leaders have spent the last two years merely verbally endorsing (or secretly dreaming) of such a move — has created something of a cognitive dissonance for these oppositionists.
‘[Israel] retaliated against the massacres in Baydha and Baniyas immediately. Where is your retaliation, Arabs?’
Different observers have dealt with this conundrum in different ways. Die-hard Israel critics like Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of leading Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, pounced at the opportunity to condemn Israel for its most recent “provocative” attack.
“If the Israeli missile strikes against Syria are not a declaration of war, flagrant aggression, and a violation of state sovereignty … what is war, then?” wrote Atwan in an op-ed Monday, echoing the reaction of Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad.
“The aggression against Syria is aggression against Syria and its people, not against the regime,” wrote Palestinian activist Abir Kopty on her Twitter page. “Even if it were aggression against the regime, it should not [come from] Israel, America or their Arab collaborators!”
But on the ground in Syria, attitudes may be changing.
“I don’t like Israel, there’s no question about that,” wrote one Damascus-based Twitter commentator who defines himself as “a devoted yogi, pianist, dancer and optimist. But right now, all I do is fight for a free Syria.”
“It is still my enemy, no argument. But when an enemy does a neat job, I admit it.”
A blogger from Homs who goes by the name of Kendeeel reported that his friend from Baniyas — a coastal city that experienced a regime-led massacre over the weekend — jokingly told him that Israel has more honor than Arab states (Arabic-language link).
“[Israel] retaliated against the massacres in Baydha and Baniyas immediately. Where is your retaliation, Arabs?” wrote Kendeeel on May 5, in a comment that was retweeted 107 times.
Yasser Al-Zaiat, a Damascus native studying sociology in Beirut, shared his inner distress following the Israeli strike.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t make up my mind between the Syrian army and the Israeli. The latter never harmed me, but the Arab inside me hates it; whereas everything inside me hates the former,” Al-Zaiat tweeted (Arabic-langage link).
No official Syrian movement would openly praise Israel for its strike against Assad’s military targets on Monday. The more prevalent attitude was to challenge the government to retaliate against the Zionist state, mocking the ineptitude of a regime that prides itself on standing at the forefront of Arab resistance to Israel.
Benedetta Berti, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, said that, politically speaking, Israeli attacks on Syria are more of a liability than an an asset for the anti-Assad opposition.
“This is very tricky for the opposition, since it clearly gives the Assad regime political ammunition to claim the rebels are collaborating with Israel,” Berti said in an interview. “The best they can do is stand back and condemn the attacks as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.”
But that may change too. Some pro-opposition organizations said foreign intervention at this stage was imperative, irrespective of its source.
“I think we all wish the conflict would have remained contained within Syria without becoming more of an international threat necessitating military intervention,” wrote Dan Layman of the Syrian Support Group, a US-based pro-opposition organization, in an email correspondence.
“But unfortunately the reality on the ground has not afforded us that luxury. So we’re of course thankful that those particular threats were neutralized.”