How Israel’s air strike could help Syria

A supporter holds a card showing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at a 2012 rally in Damascus. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

A supporter holds a card showing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at a 2012 rally in Damascus. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel's air strike on a Syrian target on Wednesday must have surely seemed important to Israeli leaders, as the foreseeable backlash has already begun. Syria's three major allies – Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – have all rushed to condemn the strike. And while it's entirely possible that their words are nothing more than rhetoric, there is also the worrying possibility that the strike could help renew their common cause with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

After two grueling years of fighting between Syrian rebels and Assad's regime, Western analysts have been looking desperately for cracks in Assad's network of alliances, which are small but have nonetheless bolstered his fighting forces and helped protect him from greater international action. The case that Moscow, Tehran or even Hezbollah might one day desert Assad is straightforward: His vicious campaign within Syria has made him increasingly unpopular and radioactive. Additionally, as fighting wears on and his ultimate victory looks less likely, the cost benefit of publicly backing him starts to drain.

But whatever degree to which Assad's alliances have been strained, they may have gotten an unintended boost in Israel's airstrike. The Washington Post's reporters in Beirut, Jerusalem and Washington reported Thursday on the very vocal denunciations of Israel from Syria's allies, all of whom appear to be renewing their support for Assad since the air strike. It seems that there are few things that can bring this bunch together better than their shared opposition to Israeli military action.

Though it's unlikely that this changes anything dramatically, the strike allows Assad and company to, at least for the moment, emphasize a shared mission of "resistance and self-defense" against Israel. For Iran and Hezbollah, that's likely a much more palatable reason to help Assad than is the true mission of saving his regime from the popular uprising that became a civil war.

Any boost this gives to Assad's alliances will likely be more about appearances than the underlying fundamentals of the conflict. The civil war is still bloody, costly, and overwhelmingly about fighting Syrian rebels, not Israeli air force jets. Still, in the ideologically charges Middle East, these things can matter. Though the Assad regime and Hezbollah still seem to be cooperating closely, for example, the militant group ultimately has to answer to its Shi'a Arab support base in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah probably still feels the same way about Assad today as he did before the Israeli air strike. But it might now be easier for him to "sell" his group's increasingly expensive campaign in Syria to his Lebanese base. One of the challenges for Nasrallah has been squaring Hezbollah's populist, anti-Israeli ideology with his campaign in Syria, which has sent fighters far from the Israeli border and to the aid of a reviled dictator. Anything that helps him portray the two missions as consistent will make it easier for him to support Assad, even if only a tiny bit.

The logic for Tehran is likely similar, particularly given fears in Iran that Israel might attempt to launch a series of air strikes against suspected nuclear sites there. More on this in a later post so please check back.

It is less clear how the Israeli air strike could affect Assad's relationship with Moscow.  Russian officials angrily denounced the attack, but Israel is of course less of a driving issue in Moscow than it is in the Middle East. Though Russian-made, SA-17 missiles were thought to be among the materials destroyed in the strike, it's unclear whether this means the weapons were being moved with Moscow's consent. Russia has been selling arms to Syria for many years.

One of the more curious details here is the time lag between the Israeli air strike and the official condemnations from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. In the interim, all parties were initially silent about the strike, leading some analysts to suspect that both Israeli and Syrian officials might have decided it was in their best interests to stay quiet rather than call attention to it. If Assad and his allies have decided differently then perhaps they see some gain in it. Nothing brings together wary allies, after all, like a common enemy.

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