Why Israel’s Syria Strike Helps Assad

On Wednesday, an airstrike hit the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, and it is widely believed that Israel was behind the attack.

As is typical, Israel will neither confirm nor deny its role in the assault, but according to Reuters, Western intelligence sources confirmed that Israel carried out the attack, and the New York Times reported that Israel also warned Washington before the assault.

This is a terrible development, not just for the Syrian opposition but for the region.

The Syrian regime, desperate and hanging on for its life, claims the attack hit a scientific research facility, but what’s far more likely, and what’s being reported by media outlets around the world, is that Israeli jets bombed a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weaponry headed for Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Israel routinely violates Lebanese airspace with its fighter jets, and in 2006, Israel bombed Lebanon for weeks from the air and killed over 1,000 people (over 100 Israelis were killed during the war). Israel’s air superiority could be threatened if Hizbollah were to receive a large stock of anti-aircraft missiles.

But the real issue here is not in the details of the attack but the attack itself.

An Israeli attack on Syrian territory is a frightening development not just because it threatens to expand Syria’s civil war into a regional conflict, but also because the attack will also likely strengthen support for Bashar al-Assad.

The regime and its supporters in Syria (and it does have some support in the country from various constituencies) already see themselves as the last barrier to a kind of Western-style imperialism in the region, and Israel’s actions will only underscore their determination to remain in power at whatever cost.

Israel’s attack therefore undermines and further weakens Syria’s fractious opposition movement, which needs no help in showing their divisions and contradictions.

The strike will also harden the resolve of Assad’s international supporters, Iran and Russia, against a resolution to the conflict.

The quagmire in Syria derives in large part because of regional realpolitik.

To the West, a weak and divided Syria is preferable to the alternatives of a strong, Iran-aligned Syria or an independent Syria with a significant Muslim Brotherhood presence in its government. And because a feeble Syria is also seen as a way of limiting the possibility of a truly independent Syria, there is little authentic desire to find a workable, long-term resolution to the conflict. As the regime has turned more vicious inside the country to stem the popular movement against its brutal rule, carrying out unbelievably horrific attacks against its own citizens, the Syrian people have been abandoned by the international community.

Russia is afraid of losing its vestiges of regional power.

And China, forever fearful of foreign intervention over its own sovereignty, plays along with Russia.

And now Israel bombs Syria.

Great.

A popular movement for change inside of Syria that began largely as a non-violent struggle committed to unity and non-sectarian goals has become increasingly sectarian and violent, accepting money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as foreign fighters, who have crossed over the border into the country, militarizing not just the country but also another generation of young men. Syria, known the world over for its rich history and warm hospitality, is being turned into a graveyard.

The Syrian civil war is a tragedy of epic proportions. Over 60,000 people have been killed, and more than 700,000 have been displaced. It is both a human and political catastrophe, and has to be solved not just at the level of humanitarian assistance, where much of the international effort is placed, but at the level of a new political arrangement.

All the actors involved should be invested in deescalating the violence, not ratcheting it up, as the Israeli airstrike does.

What we need is a real and concerted international effort to find a way to stop this terrible bloodshed and to ensure a free and democratic Syria emerges out of this nightmare.

I’m not so naïve, however, to believe that this will happen. The seductions of regional warfare and the zero-sum games of grabs for power will likely continue to outweigh the need for compassion, civilized politics, and human dignity, and that breaks my heart.

The Syrian people are paying the price for everybody else’s games. Those games must stop.