By Nicola Nasser
The timing of the Israeli air raid early on January 30 on a Syrian target, that has yet to be identified, coincided with a hard to refute indications that the “regime change” in Syria by force, both by foreign military intervention and by internal armed rebellion, has failed, driving the Syrian opposition in exile to opt unwillingly for “negotiations” with the ruling regime, with the blessing of the U.S., EU and Arab League, concluding, in the words of a Deutsche Welle report on this February 2, that “nearly two years since the revolt began, (Syrian President Bashar Al-) Assad is still sitting comfortably in presidential chair.”
Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps saying that Israel is preparing for “dramatic changes” in Syria, but senior Israeli foreign ministry officials accused him of “fear-mongering on Syria” to justify his ordering what the Russians described as the “unprovoked” raid, according to The Times of Israel on January 29. Another official told the Israeli Maariv that no Israeli “red lines” were crossed with regard to the reported chemical weapons in Syria to justify the raid. On January 16 Israel’s National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said there was “no evidence” to any Syrian steps to use such weapons. On last December 8 UN Chief Ban Ki-moon said there were “no confirmed reports” Damascus was preparing to use them. Three days later U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: “We have not seen anything new” on chemical weapons “indicating any aggressive steps” by Syria. On January 31 NATO Chief Fogh Rasmussen said: “I have no new information about chemical weapons (in Syria).” Syria’s Russian ally has repeatedly confirmed what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 2 that “we have reliable information” the Syrian government maintains control of chemical weapons and “won’t use” them. That’s what Syria itself keeps repeating, and “there is no particular reason why Israel is to be believed and Syria not,” according to a Saudi Gazette editorial on February 3.
More likely Israel is either trying to escalate militarily to embroil an unwilling United States in the Syrian conflict, in a too late attempt to pre-empt a political solution, out of a belief that the fall of the Al – Assad regime will serve Israel’s strategy, according to the former head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, (Major general, reserve) Amos Yaldin, or to establish for itself a seat at any international negotiating table that might be detrimental in shaping a future regime in Syria.
Escalating militarily at a time of political de-escalation of the military solution in Syria will not secure a seat for Israel in any forum. This is the message that the Israeli chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, should have heard during his latest five – day visit in the U.S. from his host in Washington, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey; the head of Israel’s National – Security Bureau, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Ya’akov Amidror, who was in Moscow at the same time, should have heard a similar message from his Russian hosts.
The Israeli military intervention at this particular timing fuels a Syrian fire that has recently started to look for firefighters among the growing number of the advocates of dialogue, negotiations and political solutions both nationally, regionally and internationally.
The escalating humanitarian crisis and the rising death toll in Syria have made imperative either one of two options: A foreign military intervention or a political solution. Two years on since the U.S., EU, Turkish and Qatari adoption of a “regime change” in Syria by force, on the lines of the “Libyan scenario,” the first option has failed to materialize.
With the legitimate Syrian government gaining the upper hand militarily on the ground, the inability of the rebels to “liberate” even one city, town or enough area in the countryside to be declared a “buffer zone” or to host the self-proclaimed leadership of opposition in exile, which failed during the Paris – hosted “Friends of Syria” meeting on January 28 to agree on a “government – in – exile,” more likely because of this very reason, the second option of a political solution is left as the only way forward and as the only way out of the bloodshed and the snowballing humanitarian crisis.
The Israeli raid sends a message that the military option could yet be pursued. The rebels who based their overall strategy on a foreign military intervention have recently discovered that the only outside intervention they were able to get was from the international network of al-Qaeda and the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. No surprise then that the frustrated Syrian rebels are loosing ground, momentum and morale.
An Israeli military intervention would undoubtedly revive their morale, but temporarily, because it does not potentially guarantee that it will succeed in improving their chances where failure doomed the collective efforts of all the “Friends of Syria,” whose numbers dwindled over time from more than one hundred nations about two years ago to about fifty in their last meeting in Paris.
Such intervention would only promise more of the same, prolonging the military conflict, shedding more of Syrian blood, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, multiplying the numbers of those displaced inside the country and the Syrian refugees abroad, postponing an inevitable political solution, and significantly rallying more Syrians in support of the ruling regime in defending their country against the Israeli occupier of their Syrian Golan heights, thus isolating the rebels by depriving them from whatever support their terrorist tactics have left them.
More importantly however, such an Israeli intervention risks a regional outburst if not contained by the world community or if it succeeds in inviting a reciprocal Syrian retaliation. Both Syrians and Israelis were on record in the aftermath of the Israeli raid that the bilateral “rules of engagement” have already changed.
All the “Friends of Syria” have been on record that they were doing all they could to enforce a “buffer zone” inside Syria; they tried to create it through Turkey in northern Syria, through Jordan in the south, through Lebanon in the west and on the borders with Iraq in the east, but they failed to make it materialize. They tried to enforce it by a resolution from the UN Security Council, but their efforts were aborted three times by a dual Russian – Chinese veto. They tried, unsuccessfully so far, to enforce it outside the jurisdiction of the United Nations by arming an internal rebellion, publicly on the payroll of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, logistically supported by Turkey and the U.S., British, French and German intelligence services and spearheaded mainly by the al-Qaeda – linked Al-Nusra Front, a rebellion focusing on the peripheral areas sharing borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, after the failure of an early attempt to make the western Syrian port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean play the role the city of Benghazi played in the Libyan “change of regime.”
Now, Israel has stepped in the conflict, publicly for the first time, to try its hands to enforce a “buffer zone” of its own in an attempt to succeed where all the “Friends of Syria” have failed.
On February 3, British “The Sunday Times” reported that Israel is considering creating a buffer zone reaching up to ten miles inside Syria, modelled on a similar zone it created in southern Lebanon in 1985 from which it was forced to withdraw unconditionally by the Hezbullah – led and Syrian and Iranian – supported Lebanese resistance in 2000. Israeli mainstream daily Maariv (“evening” in Hebrew) the next day confirmed the Times report, adding the zone would be created in cooperation with local Arab villages on the Syrian side of the UN-monitored buffer zone, which was created on both sides of the armistice line after the 1973 Israeli – Syrian war.
Israel in fact have been paving the way materially on the ground for an Israeli – created buffer zone. Earlier, in a much less publicized development, Israel allowed the UN-monitored buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli – occupied Syrian Golan Heights to be overtaken by the “Islamist” Syrian rebels. The European Jewish Press reported on January 1, 2013 that the Israeli premier Netanyahu, during a visit to the Israeli – occupied Golan Heights, was informed the rebels “have taken up positions along the border with Israel, with the exception of the Quneitra enclave.” Earlier on last November 14 Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted by the AP to confirm that the “Syrian rebels control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israeli – held Golan Heights.” On December 13 Israeli “The Jerusalem Post” quoted a “senior military source” as saying that “The rebel control of the area does not require changes on our part.”
UN observers monitoring the zone number about one thousand. An “Israeli officer” told a Mcclatchy reporter on last November 14 that the rebels in the zone are “fewer than 1,000 fighters.” Canada withdrew its contingent of monitors last September; Japan followed suit in January. In the previous month, France’s ambassador to the UN, Gérard Araud, warned the UN peacekeeping force on the Golan may “collapse,” according to The Times of Israel, citing the London – based Arabic daily of Al – Hayat.
The 1974 armistice agreement prohibits the Syrian government from engaging in military activity within the buffer zone; if it does it would risk a military confrontation with Israel and, according to Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, “The Syrian army doesn’t have any interest in provoking Israel,” because “Syria has enough problems.”
However it would be anybody’s guess to know for how long Syria could tolerate turning the UN monitored demilitarized buffer zone, with Israeli closed eyes, into a terrorist safe haven and into a corridor of supply linking the rebels in Lebanon to their “brethren” in southern Syria.
Israel did not challenge militarily the presence of the al – Qaeda – linked rebels on its side of the supposedly demilitarized zone nor did it complain to or ask the United Nations for a reinforcement of the UN monitors there.
Ironically, Israel cites the presence of those same rebels along the borders of the Israeli – occupied Golan Heights as the pretext to justify “considering creating a buffer zone” inside Syria!
* Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
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