Monday, 4 February 2013

Israeli air strike signals Assad's last stand

Bashar al-Assad’s renewed focus on the Israeli threat may simply be a last desperate attempt to maintain control of Syria.

Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

Last week, the Israeli Air Force carried out an attack on both a chemical plant north of Damascus and a weapons convoy near the Syrian-Lebanese border. Although Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, stopped just short of acknowledging Israel’s hand in the air strike during an interview with German journalists on Sunday, he did admit the incident was ‘proof’ that "when [the Israelis] say something, we mean it." In continuing the policy of neither confirming nor denying its involvement in military operations that violate international law, the Israeli government has delivered a stern message to Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad and Iran: we will do whatever is necessary to keep weapons out of the hands of our enemies. 

As hollow as this assurance may sound, particularly to international observers who have condemned Israel’s most recent operation as a flagrant violation of Syria’s sovereignty, the operation itself may indeed constitute an important turning point in both Syria’s civil war and in the ongoing Israeli-Iranian standoff. Two days before the strike, Iran issued a statement which equated any attack on Syrian territory to "an attack on Iran itself." This announcement was a direct response to the recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed concern that Syria’s "advanced' weaponry could end up in the wrong hands in the event of Assad’s fall from power. So far, Iran has not acted on its implicit threat of retaliation against Israel. 

Perhaps most interesting, however, was the Assad regime’s own response to last week’s attack. Although initial reports from Western media outlets indicated the air strike was carried out on a military convoy near the Syrian-Lebanese border, the official report from the Syrian military indicated that Israel’s target was actually a "scientific research center" northwest of Damascus. Aside from acknowledging the exact location of the "research center" (described by Western intelligence agencies to be a site used for the manufacture of chemical weapons), the Syrian report also suggested that the attack was proof of Israeli support for the opposition fighting to overthrow the Assad regime. In reality, an Israeli airstrike on these facilities indicates Israel’s utter lack of confidence in any regime that comes to power in Syria after Assad’s inevitable fall from power. 

From Assad’s point of view, the Israeli strike offers an opportunity to distract regional Arab powers from the fact that the Syrian president has massacred more than 50,000 of his own citizens. In the aftermath of the attack, Assad attempted to draw attention away from the bloody civil war in his own country and instead focus on Israeli designs to weaken Syria. To be sure, Assad issued his first public statement on Sunday regarding last week’s air strike at a meeting with Iranian national security council secretary Saeed Jalili in Damascus: "This aggression exposes the real role being undertaken by Israel in collaboration with hostile external powers and their tools on the Syrian land to destabilize Syria and weaken it." While both leaders affirmed their respective nations’ mutual commitment to confronting the "Zionist aggression," Assad has already come under fire from opposition and rebel activists for failing to immediately retaliate against Israel. 

Last Wednesday’s attack provides an opportunity for Assad to take on the Jewish state and so bolster legitimacy among his own people. However, the regime’s chance for retribution (with the support of Iran) is quickly slipping away, and with it any hope that the embattled Syrian president can stave off his imminent demise for much longer. @Tex_Taylor
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