After making two major air strikes in and near Damascus in three days, Israel informed the Assad regime on Monday that it is not taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But of course it is.
The Syrian government promptly claimed that these Israeli attacks proved what it had been saying all along: that the “armed terrorist groups” that are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime (i.e. the anti-regime fighters of the Free Syrian Army) are really the tools of a demonic alliance between Israel, the United States, conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the Sunni Islamist fanatics of al-Qaeda.
That is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but there were always a few little bits of truth in the Syrian regime’s story, and they are gradually getting bigger. It’s true that the Free Syrian Army is getting money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and that the United States supports it diplomatically. So do almost all other NATO members
It’s true that the al-Nusra brigades, the most effective fighting force in the Free Syrian Army, are made up of Islamist extremists whose leaders claim to have ties with al-Qaeda — and that this has not stopped the Arab Gulf states and the United States from supporting the FSA.
And it’s true that Israel is now attacking military targets on Syrian territory. It insists that those targets are actually advanced missiles and anti-aircraft weapons that Syria is planning to deliver to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and that may also be true. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon in 2006, and Israel is anxious about what it could accomplish with better weapons.
But even if Israel’s main worry is that advanced weapons would reach Hezbollah, the air strikes took place on Syrian territory, and the Syrian regime claims that 42 officers and soldiers of its army were killed in them. At the very least, Israel no longer feels that preserving the hostile but stable relations that prevailed for so long between Tel Aviv and Damascus is a high priority.
The Assad regime said that the attacks were tantamount to a “declaration of war”, and that is true. It’s not that the Israelis have decided that Assad must go. It’s rather that they have looked down the road, seen a Sunni-Shia war looming in the eastern Arab world – and decided, rationally enough, that they have to be on the Sunni side.
That war is already underway in Syria, where men from the majority Sunni Muslim community are the main fighters in a revolt against a regime controlled by Shias of the Alawite sect. The same sort of war may be re-starting in Iraq, where the Shia majority who dominate the government have already fought one civil war with the Sunni minority in 2005-07.
Those two Sunni-Shia wars might then coalesce and spread to Lebanon, where the Shias of Hezbollah are at odds with the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Weapons, money, and maybe direct military aid would come from Shia Iran to one side and from the Sunni countries to the south (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states) to the other. In such a war, Israel would certainly prefer a Sunni victory.
It has no desire to take an active part in a Sunni-Shia war, nor would its intervention be welcomed by either side. It worries that radical Islamist regimes might come to power in Syria, in the western part of Iraq, and even in Lebanon if the Sunnis won such a war. But Israel is at peace with its Sunni southern neighbours, while the Shia regimes to its north in Syria and Iraq and the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon are all its sworn enemies.
If it comes to an all-out struggle, Israel knows which side it wants to win. And in the meantime, it already feels a lot freer to take direct military action against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah if it thinks its interests are threatened.