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CİHAN ÇELİK > Who was hit in Syria: The rebels, Damascus, or Israel itself?

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With the alleged air strike whose exact target is still in question, Israel was purportedly giving its first response, in its traditional military methods, after remaining unusually mum to the ongoing crisis in arch-foe Syria for nearly two years.

While the air raid reportedly hit a military convoy that was supposedly carrying “game-changing” weapons to a Lebanese militant group, Syrian sources disputed the oft-voiced claim about arms smuggling to Hezbollah, instead saying that a scientific research center was targeted. The attack brought swift retaliation threats from Damascus and its main regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah, while Israel continued its years-long policy of neither confirming nor denying it.

Considering the mounting regional hostilities, the significance of the latest aggression against Syria went beyond the attack itself. For Israel, the timing could be explained first of all in relation to its recent elections, after which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to keep his post, despite his right-wing camp’s decreased power. Despite his harsh rhetoric, during his first term Netanyahu pursued a passive-aggressive regional policy - although there were unprecedented changes and ongoing turmoil in Israel’s near and hostile region. He avoided a direct and clear stance toward both the so-called “Arab Spring,” which has brought nothing but more violence and chaos to the region, and the Civil War in Syria. The political draining after the bittersweet poll victory and the growing pressure from his ultra-nationalist allies might have led him to make a military call in the midst of the fierce negotiations for the next Cabinet.

The second option for Israel could be related to the dwindling U.S. influence in the Middle East, with President Barack Obama’s security policy shifting focus from the region toward the Asia-Pacific, in view of the “Chinese threat.”

With its main ally pulling out its forces from the region after failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neighborhood has become more paradoxical for Israel, which has started to feel increasingly insecure with the regime changes in its arch-enemy neighbors. Having only conspiracy theories, but no clear political or security strategies in its hands, the air raid in Syria, whether conducted by Israel or not, gave Israel a public chance to signal that it is still vigilant in the event of regime change, which carries a high risk of bringing to power figures more hostile than the “known-devil.” The attack was also seen as a warning message to Hezbollah, with many in Lebanon having long feared a spilling over of the chaos in Syria, which has traditionally always cast a shadow over Lebanese politics.

In contrast, the attack handed President Bashar al-Assad a perfect opportunity to rally the divided Syrians, and even other Arabs and Muslims, around a “divine cause” - a powerful argument considering the high anti-Israeli sentiment both at home and abroad. If there is anything that can bring alienated Arab public opinion together with leaders - whether allied on not - it is “resistance” against Israel. That is exactly why the Arab League, which expelled Syria from the bloc over the bloodshed, as well as the Syrian opposition, was among the first to condemn the raid.

Regardless of its attitude to the attack, or Israel’s plans for more, the assault has dealt a serious blow to the Syrian opposition, which will be now labeled the “friend of a foe” following accusations that it is part of an “international conspiracy” against Damascus amid decreasing support and attention from Western-led allies. There is a high possibility in the coming days that the opposition will offer more than just desperate, cautious offers for negotiations with al-Assad, amid its slimming hopes of securing full control of power.

February/02/2013

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