Syria's regime and rebels each try to use Israeli airstrike to their advantage

The Assad regime says the attack underscores the need for unity. The opposition has contrasted the regime's lack of response with its relentless attacks on its own people.

Yazan Homsy/REUTERS
A damaged military vehicle that belonged to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen in a damaged neighborhood in Homs late last month.

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Although all signs point to Israel as responsible for an attack two days ago on Syrian territory, the political fallout seems to be concentrated in Syria, where both the Assad regime and the opposition are trying to work the incident to their respective advantages.

The beleaguered regime is using the attack, which Israel has refused to acknowledge, to cast the opposition as allied with “the Zionist enemy” and appeal to Syrians about the need for unity in the face of hostility. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is painting the lack of retaliation for the attack as evidence that the government and Army have been greatly weakened by the uprising.

On Wednesday, Israeli jets reportedly struck a convoy allegedly carrying advanced anti-aircraft weapons to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has been steadily building up its arsenal in preparation for a possible future conflict with Israel. While Hezbollah threatened retaliation, however, it may be reluctant to engage in a conflict with Israel when Syria, a key backer of the militant group, is torn by civil war, The Christian Science Monitor reports. 

Both Israel and the Syrian opposition have denied any Israeli role in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian government “called the raid evidence of Israeli complicity,” and said that Israel was only able to make a foray into Syrian airspace because the opposition had attacked “air defense and radar installations,” The Los Angeles Times reports.

Hezbollah said that it hoped the airstrike would prompt the Syrian opposition "to rethink their position and adopt political dialogue as the sole basis for a solution to stem Syrian blood,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Daily Star, in Lebanon, reports that Hezbollah said the attack revealed Israel’s “motives toward [unrest] in Syria over the past two years and the criminal thinking aimed at destroying Syria and its army and eliminating its pivotal resistance and rejectionist role to pave the way for unfolding the chapters of a major conspiracy against [Syria] and against our Arab and Muslim peoples.”

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have been highlighting the disparity between the regime’s rhetoric-only response to the Israeli attack and its no-holds-barred crackdown on the uprising.

"It's a disgrace when Israeli war planes attack Syria and your jets have no other job but to attack bakeries, mosques, universities and civilians," Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Western-backed Syrian opposition umbrella group known as the National Coalition, wrote yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Amos Harel, a military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writes that Syria’s acknowledgement of the attack “surprised” Israeli officials since their own silence gave Syria cover to pretend it didn’t happen.

Even more surprising than the announcement itself, an exceptional step compared to the previous Syrian policy concerning Israel, were the details. The wording of the Syrian announcement along with the geographic location pointed to a site well-known to Western intelligence organizations: One of Syria's centers for the manufacture of nonconventional weapons.

Damascus released information that it generally prefers to keep secret. Moreover, as opposed to previous attacks ascribed to Israel and which both sides kept quiet about, this time it seems the Assad regime was willing to publicly expose the damage to its national honor.

Why did the Syrians choose to abandon the chance to deny that Israel allowed them? This time it seems they want to exploit the attack for their own purposes. The announcement yesterday said the bombing was proof that Israel is behind the opposition groups fighting the government.

This, of course, is a big lie, but in Assad's condition he needs all the diplomatic ammunition he can get.

Reuters writes that Israel’s silence on the attack is in keeping with the way it has handled similar incidents in the past. The silence not only helps keep spies and strategy under wraps, but allows “foes to save face and thus reduce the risk of reprisal and escalation.”

Avoiding any behavior that could be seen as bragging also lessens the need for statements of condemnation from countries Israel often cooperates with, such as Jordan, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, in an editorial headlined “A bounty of empty threats,” the Daily Star writes that a Syrian response is unlikely, in keeping with Syria’s habit of launching only verbal attacks in response to Israeli aggression. Iran is the party to watch, it argues. 

Earlier this week, Iran said it considered any attack on Syria as tantamount to an attack on the Islamic Republic. The world will now have to wait to see if Iranian officials have decided to take a page from the book of their Syrian counterparts, namely the issuing of empty threats.

For decades, Damascus has based the legitimacy of the Baath regime on terms such as “resistance” to Israeli aggression. However, the historical record shows that Syria has preferred to avoid responding to these attacks, such as a 2007 strike on a purported nuclear facility in the Syrian desert, or the assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh the following year.

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