3 – 10 May 2013
The main focus this week has been to gauge the ‘rationale’ behind the Israeli strikes on Syria last Friday and Sunday – and to assess the ramifications. Ostensibly, Israel claimed its actions were directed against preventing Hizbullah attaining strategic, ‘game changing’ weapons. This policy has been announced to the West over recent years (in different contexts: firstly, S-300 surface-to-air missiles, then Fateh 110 missiles, and lately chemical weapons). Western states silently have acquiesced and therefore consented to this claimed ‘entitlement’, and the pretext therefore is no doubt seen in Israel as one against which the western states cannot easily object. Nearly one week later however, there is no substantive evidence that weapons destined for Hizbullah were indeed intercepted. True, the Jurmana research facility near Damascus, a site widely known to have been set up to serve the military needs of the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine, was attacked by missiles in a spectacular of pyrotechnics last Sunday, but informally, Hizbullah sources suggest that a consignment of “effective” weapons had just recently successfully reached them (this was also confirmed by senior reporters in the Israeli press).
Possibly connected to this, Lebanon, from Friday onwards, has been subject to intensive and low-altitude Israeli over-flights – as if the Israelis had failed in their initial objective – but were still searching to locate the consignment, but had failed to halt (assuming the Hizbullah claim is taken to be accurate, which it probably is). It is quite likely, however, that Israel will have had some partial intercept intelligence of a transfer, which Israeli officials will have presented in their ‘road-shows’ around Europe to underpin their mission rationale.
In any event, as the dust settles, it seems that casualties in Damascus have been much, much smaller than claimed by opposition sources (the Syrian army is a citizen army, and major losses such as claimed, cannot realistically be hidden from the wider population), and no strategic military outcome has ensued. Hizbullah is already fully armed, and Israeli intelligence has suggested for some time now that the Fateh 110 missiles are already a part of its arsenal.
All this suggests then, that that the attack was more political than substantive. What then was Israel’s rationale? Opinion in this region suggests two possibilities: the first is connected to timing: the raid occurred in the wake of substantive gains in the field by the Syrian army against the armed opposition. There are some unsubtantiated accounts that Israel’s highly visible, shock and awe-style attack on Damascus may have been intended to give a fillip to the opposition, and to facilitate an opposition assault within Damascus – just before the Kerry-Putin meeting in Moscow – an occurrence, which had it happened and been successful, might have strengthened the opposition’s hand in such talks. More probable, in our view, is that this whole affair was constructed with the aim of supporting opinion within the US in favour of more direct intervention in Syria. Israel no doubt calculated (correctly) that they could just about get away with such a demonstrative intervention in Syria without starting a war – and if the interventionists succeeded in pushing Obama to ignore his ‘red line’ on the Syria issue using this precedent, they would be the more strongly placed to do the same to Obama in respect to intervention in Iran.
The strategic ramifications of the Israeli attacks effectively have raised the Syrian conflict from a contained proxy war, fought within Syria, to one in which external parties (Israel, Iran, Hizbullah and Russia) have stood at the brink of direct external military intervention in the conflict – as result of Israel’s past three direct interventions on Syria, and in the event that Israel mounts a fresh attack. In other words, the Israeli actions have placed us at greater risk of the Syrian conflict evolving into a wider, regional conflict. Among the consequences to Sunday’s attacks, Israeli and other sources (see here too) have been reporting the strongly adverse reaction by President Putin to the Israeli action. Putin is reported to have directly warned Netanyahu that Russia would not tolerate any further attack on Syria, and any such move would bring a direct Russian response to his actions – as well as additional Russian weapons systems being transferred to Syria. (Netanyahu also is reported in Israel to have received a cold reception on his subsequent visit to China, but not to the extent of the verbal ‘dressing-down’ that he received in Moscow). The Iranian Supreme Leader too promised ‘full and unlimited’ support for Syria, and Hizbullah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, spoke of a closer military alliance with Syria, and of Syria’s decision – in consequence – to accelerate weapons supplies and to include new ‘balance changing’ ones to Hizbullah (a direct challenge to Israel). Strikingly, the Hizbullah leader also pointed to a Syrian decision to ‘reclaim’ the Golan, as a further fallout to the Israeli strikes. Are we therefore on the brink of war? At this point, probably not. Efforts (both domestic and external) to corner Obama into intervention on Syria over an alleged breach of his chemical weapons ‘red line’, have somewhat collapsed: as Obama explained: “We have evidence that there has been the use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, but I don’t make decisions based on “perceived.” And I can’t organize international coalitions around “perceived.” We’ve tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn’t work out well”. The evidence is not there; and ICC Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte’s, statement that there were direct suspicions of the use of the nerve gas Sarin – but by the opposition, rather than by the Syrian government – has allowed Obama to kick the issue into the undergrowth of a thorough (and long) enquiry. Conflicts Forum believes that Obama – with his historical legacy in mind – still clings to the wish to be viewed in history as the man who extracted America from its troublesome Middle East wars, rather than started others. Iranian sources noted that messages had passed in the aftermath of the Israeli action to Iran, Syria and Russia, that the US was not about to intervene militarily – and Israel too subsequently has been sending flurries of messages out that it too was not about to start a war.
Where does this leave Syria? It emerges in a stronger, more confident position both militarily and politically (see here for recent upbeat comments by a senior Syrian official). For the time being, the focus now will be on the issue of possible negotiations at an international conference proposed for the end of May. In the political sphere, it is the US who has blinked first — it is America that has moved closer toward the Russian position (i.e. the absence of the earlier demand that Assad should go), whereas Syria, Iran and Hizbullah have, in recent days, given public expression to the mounting of a reinvigorated resistance front.
But will the West be able to fulfil its side of the Moscow agreement – by presenting a credible (and empowered) negotiating partner from the opposition side at the table? Russia will not have such a corresponding difficulty with Damascus. And in the interim, the Syrian government forces are likely aim to extend further their military successes in the field. But this, it seems, will not displease the US: signalling perhaps, the beginning of a major shift in US thinking. Reports coming out from the Moscow talks, suggest that a principal American objective in Moscow has become the maintenance of the Syrian Army (even one under Assad’s command). It seems – belatedly – that the US may be giving up on the hope – if it ever truly existed beyond a pipe dream – of the opposition having any prospect (or indeed the will) to eliminate the Islamist armed groups – especially the Al-Qae’da linked Al-Nusra Front. And now, the US seems inclined to the view that it is the Syrian Army that represents the only force capable of destroying Al-Qaida in Syria – and moreover is successfully doing it. Perhaps no ceasefire therefore? The Syrian army will continue to attack the Islamist opposition, whilst in parallel, the non-jihadist opposition is to be invited into negotiations. Is this feasible? Can the so-called ‘seculars’ accept this division? The Americans are already preparing the opposition for negotiation, but can the more secular opposition really sit in negotiations with the government, whilst the Al-Nusra Front is being taken down by the Syrian Army? Will the conference ever be held? If not, then what?