President Bashar al-Assad preoccupied with the civil war in his country, but this is not the only war that is on his radar. Assad knows that Israeli defense officials are preparing for a possible military operation in Lebanon, and a senior IDF officer even commented that, “The Goldstone report will pale in comparison” to the consequences of a third Lebanon war. As the uprising in Syria continues, it is becoming clearer to Assad that the fate of his regime is tied to the fate of Hezbollah.
This Shiite terrorist organization is currently providing support for the Alawite regime in Syria, and it may significantly further its assistance so it can ensure that Assad will remain in power. Statements by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is dependent on Syria for military assistance, show the importance of their alliance. Unlike when Nasrallah supported other Arab uprisings in the Middle East, such as the Shiite uprising against Bahrain’s Sunni throne, he has shown solidarity with Syria by calling it “a resistance regime [against Israel].”
In other words, Nasrallah’s statement signifies that the Alawite regime has legitimate sovereignty over Syria, for Assad is a key member in the international anti-Israel movement.
All of these factors show that now may be the prime opportunity for an Israeli operation against Hezbollah. The Jewish state can kill two birds with one stone: it can inflict serious damage to Hezbollah and simultaneously hasten the fall of the Assad regime. The president of Syria may wish to do everything in his power that would prevent such a war from happening, for he will need all of his allies’ support in the coming weeks.
For instance, he may not transfer chemical weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah during the time that his regime is alive. Such an action, described by Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman as a “casus belli” (justification for war), may place Israel in a situation where it must take military action. President Assad may wish to avoid this, for IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz even commented that Israel “Is liable to find itself in a wider conflict than it [had originally] planned” if the IDF initiated a military operation.
However, despite all of the compelling evidence, the strategic position of Assad may not be so clear-cut. Syria’s possible diplomatic gain from such a conflict may help to stabilize the Alawite regime. Assad may provoke Israel into an armed conflict with Hezbollah so he can distract rebel forces in his country and unite the Syrian people. Israel’s border with Lebanon has been relatively quiet since 2006, but this may change if Assad desires to bolster himself as the leader of the anti-Israel axis.
He can have the best of both worlds: He can give rhetorical support to Hezbollah so that he can boost his domestic popularity, and he would not need to engage Syria’s resources in the war. Significant damage to Hezbollah would certainly hurt Assad, but he may view this as a necessary evil so that he can consolidate his nation.
One may counter-argue that globalization and the interconnectedness of our world make this tactic impossible, for the power of social media and the internet (as featured in the Arab Spring) can ensure that Assad will not be able to distract rebel forces so easily. For instance, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can increase accountability and may mitigate the efficacy of state-sponsored propaganda that is meant to galvanize national unity. Nonetheless, it is possible that state-funded anti-Israel propaganda may not be challenged by rebel forces, for anti-Zionism is still prevalent amongst many Syrian citizens.
Another obstacle Assad will face is that Syrian rebels may find it difficult to support Hezbollah in a war, for many view the members of the Shiite terrorist group as collaborators with the Alawite regime. Nevertheless, Assad can project a message to his people that is strictly anti-Israel and not necessarily speak of Hezbollah. In other words, he can avoid upsetting anti-Hezbollah elements amongst his citizens by rhetorically attacking Israel, thus casting an effective scapegoat.
Will the government of Israel ever understand the position of Assad on a third Lebanon war? If the government of Syria initiates any provocative actions against Israel in the coming months, then this may indicate his preference for war. The continuation of the status quo can demonstrate that Assad is leaning toward the opposite.
In the midst of so much uncertainty, Jerusalem is faced with a pressing question: Is the destruction of Hezbollah the last lifeline for the Alawite Regime, or is it Assad’s Achilles’ heel?