As the civilian death toll in the Gaza strip climbed past 500 on Monday, the global spotlight shifted from Syria to the Israeli ground offensive in Palestine. The reverberations are being felt in Syria, with which Israel shares a border – and a contentious history.
“Now that the Arab-Israeli conflict is back in the spotlight, [Bashar] Assad is back in his comfort zone. People around the world are paying attention to Gaza, and not what’s happening in Syria,” says Nadim Shehadi, the former director of Oxford University’s Center for Lebanese Studies and now a fellow at Chatham House focusing on Syria and Palestine.
He adds, “Throughout the Arab world, you do find the insinuation that what’s happening in Gaza is a diversion from what’s happening in Syria and that Hamas is now playing Iran’s game. Hamas has Syrian and Iranian-made rockets, and those are the long range ones that are really affecting Israel – the ones that can reach Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”
We asked Shehadi to weigh in on what he says is Assad’s history of using the Israeli conflict for political gain, and how the fresh round of violence in Gaza could impact Syria’s border:
Syria Deeply: How is Assad reacting to the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza City? With its biggest ally, Iran, involved in Gaza, what does this mean for the regime?
Nadim Shehadi: A regime like Assad’s is comfortable with and derives much of its legitimacy from the Arab-Israeli conflict and has none when it comes to facing the revolt that began in Syria in 2011. The regime has tried many times to revive or rekindle the old flame of the Arab-Israeli conflict since then as a means of diverting attention from its own internal conflict, and it has proved surprisingly unsuccessful. Those old tricks don’t work on the Syrian population anymore.
One example was on May 15, 2011, when there were two demonstrations: one that originated in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, near Damascus, and one from Saida, Lebanon. They were both diverted to the Israeli border and both were shot at by the Israelis resulting in casualties. What is relevant is that the anger of the population was directed at the regime – not just the Israelis – although there was of course anger towards the Israelis as well. At Yarmouk, there were slogans against the regime in the funerals of those who fell at the border. The perception was that the regime was trying to flare up the conflict with Israel in order to divert Syrian’s attention from the Syrian revolt.
Now, you often find that among the supporters of Assad, the narrative always includes the regime’s role in the resistance block against Israel; whereas Assad’s opponents mock it and refer to the regime’s lack of response to Israeli raids and to the fact that Syria had a peaceful border with Israel since the mid-1970s. Part of the underlying tension is a revolt against the regime’s resistance narrative. It’s a constant theme: the regime uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to legitimize itself, and the opposition ignores it and pushes for demands unrelated to it.
What’s happening in Gaza this week is a boost to the Assad regime and its main ally, Iran, for at least two reasons. First, it means that Hamas is now back on the resistance front after it has had a rift with the regime. In the past, Hamas was accused of helping the Syrian rebels to fight the regime and taught them techniques learned from Hezbollah, including techniques like tunnel digging. Having Hamas back on board carries enormous significance because the regime and Iran cannot credibly claim to lead the resistance bloc without it. Second, the war in Gaza has deflected attention from the events in Syria where the regime is still crushing the revolt and bombing its own civilians. It has helped bring back the Arab-Israeli conflict to the centre of the stage.
Syria Deeply: How are rebel groups reacting?
Shehadi: There’s definitely fallout for the rebels from the war in Gaza. They are in a situation where they feel totally abandoned and where there’s now Western talk about engagement with Assad and Iran, who the West might turn to to help resolve the ISIS issue. There is confusion in the West over whether Iran and Assad are the cause or solution to the problem. And it looks like Iran is one of the few players that has influence on Hamas and can be useful in resolving the conflict in Gaza. Iran and Assad have played this game of arsonist/firefighter for a very long time, and it’s been very successful. It goes back to the early 1980s where U.S. and European hostages would be kidnapped in Lebanon by Syrian and Iranian proxy groups, and then the hostages would be released to great fanfare in Damascus. Which makes Syria look like it’s solving the problem when in fact it’s helped create it.
Syria Deeply: Could events in Gaza lead to an escalation in the Golan Heights, the border area between Israel and Syria?
Shehadi: Everything’s possible from here. This would depend on how much escalation is needed to extract a deal. If necessary there will be an escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border. It depends how quickly a cease-fire is achieved between Israel and Hamas. Hamas and the resistance front can already declare victory, because any concessions, like prisoner releases, it obtains through a cease-fire deal will demonstrate that results can be obtained by resistance, whereas negotiations have led nowhere.