For Syria's Allies, Attacking Israel Could Pay Off
The worsening crisis battering Syria threatens more than the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It also carries with it the potential to recast the balance of power in the Middle East, with damaging results for Iran and conceivably disastrous consequences for its allies -- Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Given the magnitude of the stakes for these players, one can argue that it would make strategic sense from their perspective to try to lure Israel into a more intense armed conflict: not an all-out war, but clashes powerful enough to garner headlines and capture the attention and emotions of the Arab world.
The wars Israel fought against Hezbollah in 2006 and against Hamas in 2008-2009 showed that a conflict with Israel all but ensures a passionate groundswell of support in the Middle East. The players could then leverage that intensity of emotion to turn the tide of events in their favor. The battlefield experience, however, also showed that a sustained military encounter with Israel can take a costly toll in lives, ammunition and infrastructure. Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention Syria, would rather not see their arsenals destroyed. But they could benefit enormously from the resurgence of support that would follow a dramatic news-making, face-to-face dust up with what they call the "Zionist entity."
Achieving such a delicate balance -- somewhere between serious clash and war -- requires a degree of calibration that is all but impossible in the unpredictable dynamics of armed conflict. And yet, there is ample evidence that segments of Hamas, probably encouraged by Iran and Syria, have already begun to deploy this push-and-pull of provocation and restraint.
For the Syrian regime, it probably comes too late. Now that the Assad government's heavy handed methods against protesters have left a reported 400 dead, it is much less likely that the Syrian population will be distracted by Israel. If Syria is to win this test of wills with the opposition, it will not do it by drawing attention to an external enemy.
For Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, however, the tactic could still produce results.
Iran has struggled with its response to the Syrian uprising, because it undermines Tehran's narrative of the events unfolding in the Middle East. Tehran has expressed support for Arab uprisings in places such as Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, arguing that the uprisings mimic the Iranian revolution of 1979. But Syria's Assad is Iran's closest ally. So while Iran has praised pro-democracy activists everywhere in the Arab world, it has berated Syria's anti-regime activists, claiming they act at the behest of Israel and the U.S. Tehran would be well-served by images of heavily armed Israeli forces firing on Palestinians. Rather than being cast as the protector of a dictator like Assad, Tehran could again take the stage as the defender of the Palestinians.
In addition to perhaps forestalling the loss of Assad's patronage, renewed battles between Hamas and Israel would also raise Hamas' standing among Palestinians, who have been pressuring the two main Palestinian political organizations, Fatah and Hamas, to reconcile. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah announced Wednesday that they have reached a preliminary agreement that would pave the way for an interim unity government and subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections.
Fighting Israel could also bring about a change in Egypt's position regarding Gaza's southern border crossing into Egypt. With Hosni Mubarak, the staunchly anti-Hamas former Egyptian president, now out of power, Israel can no longer be sure that Egypt will keep Gaza's southern border sealed, as it has during past outbreaks of fighting. This time, Cairo, which brokered the announced reconciliation deal, might just help Hamas, at the very least by making it easier for weapons to flow from the south into the Gaza Strip.
The tactic clearly puts Israeli leaders on the spot. They know that starting a war at this crucial moment in the history of the Middle East could be grievously counterproductive. Israeli strategists are familiar with all the reasons that Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah have for wanting a confrontation. From Israel's perspective, they constitute the very reasons to prevent such a conflict from flaring up. But the recent series of attacks against Israeli civilians showed how political pressure can build on Israeli officials when the population is under fire.
While anti-regime protesters in Syria keep their focus on unseating the Assad regime, their uprising could end up causing explosions far from Damascus.
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