Will Syria strike Israel in self defense?
Four Syrian soldiers were killed and three were injured last week, after Israeli airstrikes were launched against Damascus. The Israeli attack was the third of its kind during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. Will we see the Syrian government begin to respond to such aggression?
Last week’s Israeli attack was the third of its kind during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, causing significant injuries and resulting in Syria yet again complaining to the United Nations. The Syrian government has repeatedly told the UN that it reserves the right to respond to Israel’s unprovoked acts of war against its territory, infrastructure, and military. However, Syria has not officially responded to Israel’s attacks since 2018. Between then and now, Israel is believed to have attacked Syria over a hundred times.
It is largely believed that the primary reasons behind Syria’s reluctance to strike Israel, comes down to both domestic issues and Russia’s influence over the country. Moscow has attempted to play a strategic game in the Middle East, which sees it maintain close ties with both Tel Aviv and Damascus. For Syria, it also holds back from major military offensives elsewhere in the country as well and this comes down to the same two factors. The ‘Caesar Act’ sanctions, waged by the US Government against Syria, have worked well to cripple Syria’s economy. Combined with this are the negative effects on regional players, if Syria was to launch offensives, which is largely seen as the reason for the country’s current pause to most fronts of military confrontation.
Yet, all that being said, the current political landscape may provide for an ideal time for Syria’s re-engagement in the military confrontation with Israel, specifically in the Golan Heights. As a direct result of the Russian intervention in Ukraine the Israeli government has been placed in a very sensitive political position, forced to choose between its US and European allies on one hand, and Russia on the other.
The current Israeli ruling coalition has lost its majority in the Knesset and is proving to be an ineffective regime, due to opposing ideological positions inside the government. Whilst Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, maintains a far-right Israeli agenda, he is faced with dealing with his coalition partner Yair Lapid, who is set to take over as Premier for the second half of the government’s rule. Lapid has repeatedly made his anti-Russian intervention position clear, whilst Bennett has attempted to hold middle ground. On other issues, like the Israeli stance towards the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the occupied West Bank, Bennett is also at logger heads with Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, both of which favor dialogue with the PA to enhance ‘security coordination’.
Naftali Bennett is constantly under attack from the leader of the Israeli opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, who lashes out at the Prime Minister from the Right. Bennett’s Yamina Party supporters are notably right-wing hardliners and many of Netanyahu’s arguments have the potential to hold weight with Yamina supporters. Bennett is forced to maintain a hardline right-wing stance, without publicly compromising too much, for fear of losing his supporters and right-wing coalition MK’s [Members of Knesset]. This is whilst the more pragmatic elements of his government pursue a completely different strategy to that of his. At any moment, Likud party leader Netanyahu could make deals with members of the current government and trigger a vote of no confidence in Bennett’s ruling coalition, something that strikes fear into the current administration.
As a reaction to Israel’s varying stances against Russia, over the issue of Ukraine, Moscow recently summoned its Israeli envoy after critical statements were made by Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid. The US Government also seems unhappy with the current leadership and can clearly see its ineffectiveness on multiple fronts.
Assuming that Moscow is unhappy with Israel, which is what its current rhetoric would suggest, it is very possible that Russia may seek to send a strong message to Tel Aviv. This is where Syria comes in. It is not likely that Russia wants to see a new front opened between its allies, whilst the crisis in Ukraine is draining the majority of their attention. However, if a regional conflict erupts regardless, it could well give a green light to Damascus, to strike Israel in retaliation for past aggressions.
The likelihood of regional war has grown close during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, with Israel desecrating the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, killing around 20 Palestinians in the West Bank, bombing Gaza and Lebanon. A regional coalition has clearly been formed, which includes groups from within the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemen’s Ansarallah, and the Palestinian armed factions. If these groups are to engage in a battle with Israel, Syria would be smart to join in on the action.
Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has been attempting to revive Syria’s standing in the region and to end the Arab regimes’ isolation of it since the beginning of the war. A limited regional conflict with Israel would give Damascus the perfect opportunity to join in on the glory and place itself at center stage in Arab affairs once again, also reviving its legal claims to the occupied Golan Heights. This would not mean that Syria would have to put boots on the ground against Israel, but simply that it would participate directly in attacking alongside others.
Last year’s 11-day Gaza war with Israel displayed the power of Hamas to strategically overcome Israel and foil its offensive strategies. Following the battle between Gaza and Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian armed factions came off as strong players, being viewed throughout the Arab world as victors of the war. If missiles were to fly from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Gaza, the Israeli military would be overwhelmed, and its capacity to respond adequately on all fronts would be severely hindered. This is why a calculated move from Syria could prove extremely successful for its standing regionally and force the Arab League — as well as the international community — to take it more seriously. It would also be the perfect way for Russia to show Israel that, if it crosses red lines, Moscow has no problem with its ally, Syria, responding to Israeli aggression.
All of this comes down to educated speculation, but nevertheless, if Syria is seeking to respond to Tel Aviv, in the midst of a regional conflict with Israel would be the smartest time for them to do so.