Politics & Policy

The Indirect Approach

Syria's cunning plan in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad have an interest in triggering Israeli military and security reactions. All of them are opposed to Mahmoud Abbas’s agreement with Israel and hope to undermine his efforts. However, behind these “organizations” you have the regimes that feed and use them: Syria’s Baath party and Iran’s mullahs. The Tel Aviv bombing several days ago could have been executed by either one or more of the organizations, as they are multiple arms of Syria’s terror strategies. And Damascus today has an interest in dragging Israel into a military confrontation

Why would Syria, which is in trouble in Lebanon and under pressure because of its role in Iraq, want this additional “problem” with the Israelis? Isn’t this yet another miscalculation? Possibly: But the Baathist regime needs to heat up the conflict with Israel so that the nature of its confrontation in Lebanon with an increasingly united opposition of Christians, Druze, and Sunnis (and some moderate Shiites) can change. This post-assassination unity is a lethal threat to Syria’s interests in Lebanon. The regime cannot afford to withdraw from the country it has occupied for decades. Bashar Assad was offered a way out several times by the U.S. since 2002 but he continues refusing to relinquish control. With a U.N. resolution pending, and a vigorous Lebanese diaspora putting pressure worldwide, Syria’s Baath is in real trouble in Lebanon. Hence, they are now using the tools at their disposal: the jihadist organizations. By striking Israel, they aim to force it to retaliate in a limited way, which will give Hezbollah the pro-Syrian regime in Beirut an opportunity to crush the opposition. Will they be successful?

In the past, Israel’s retaliation doctrine was used against it by the terrorists. They would choose the timing of the strikes to provoke an Israeli retaliation, and would accordingly prepare their media for the next step. But recently, Israelis have begun to change their strategy. They are responding at their own pace. More importantly, they are taking into consideration two important factors: First, the ability of Abbas to reign in his own areas. If Islamic Jihad or Hamas were the perpetrators, it would be a better idea–at least at this stage–to have the Palestinian Authority retaliate. That is an important strategic change, if Abbas is capable of asserting his authority.

Secondly, the Israelis are keenly aware of the bigger picture in the Middle East. The United States is engaged in Iraq fighting terrorists. Washington has an interest in keeping the Israeli-Palestinian arena contained for as long as possible to stabilize Iraq, and would prefer to see Israel and the Palestinian Authority cooperating against the jihadists. Syria sees otherwise. It wants a whole breakdown of the peace process. But the international community wants Syria out of Lebanon. Therefore, both France and the U.S. have been putting pressure on Damascus to pull its troops out. It is certainly in the interest of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to see the Lebanese political oppositionists win the battle in Lebanon, because then the Syrian destabilizing factor would be removed from the area.

But don’t the Syrians know that if they ignite a conflict with Israel through their proxy, Hezbollah, they will be retaliated against? They do, and actually they would welcome such a retaliatory strike. Their estimate is that the international community won’t allow an Israeli invasion in the midst of an Iraq war. Hence Assad’s regime would absorb the potential Israeli blows and move forward in Lebanon by mobilizing Hezbollah against the “Zionist enemy.” They project a trade-off. If Israel ceases its strikes, Syria will stop Hezbollah’s attacks, and the West will suspend its support for the Lebanese opposition. Then Syria, Hezbollah, and their allies will take their time to annihilate the pillars of the opposition in Lebanon. Meanwhile, to placate Paris and Washington they would offer a withdrawal to the Bekaa Valley and other cosmetic concessions. This is the Syrian plan, but will it work? That is the question.

Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a professor of Middle East Studies.

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