More than two weeks after Hamas launched Al-Aqsa Flood against Israel on 7 October, Israel is still in the process of responding with Operation Swords of Iron. But Syria has not entered the fray, neither interfering in the war nor becoming a direct target for the Israelis amid fears that the pro-Iranian Hizbullah will try to involve it militarily.
Since the start of Hizbullah’s military operation in Israel, the Syrian regime has focused all official and semi-official media on covering developments. There has hardly been any local news in the print or broadcast media. The regime also sponsored a few protests by trade unions and professional syndicates in Damascus that were limited in number, size and duration.
Syria also declared three days of mourning for the victims of Al-Ahli (Maamadani) Hospital in the Gaza Strip in Palestine. Syrian media described the massacre as “one of the most horrifying and bloodiest massacres against humanity in the modern era.” There were no demonstrations on the day the hospital was bombed, nor the following day.
Syrian officials made several statements about the war in Gaza. President Bashar Al-Assad who called for “rapid action on the Arab and Islamic fronts to protect the Palestinian people especially in the Gaza Strip, and ending Israeli air strikes.”
Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad denounced the Israeli assault on Gaza during meetings and communications with his counterparts in several countries, notably Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman. The chief diplomats discussed adopting a unified Arab position to stop the aggression.
Insubstantial solidarity with the Palestinians, which does not include any practical steps, either humanitarian, military or political, was surprising for a country that presents itself as one of the pillars of the axis of resistance against Israel.
It seems the regime is afraid that marches and demonstrations could evolve and demand opening a front with Israel. That would put the regime in a precarious position, and refusing to do so would anger the already discontented Syrian people. The regime also fears being lured into skirmishes or military operations at a time when Syria is economically and militarily depleted.
The Syrian opposition said the regime blocked demonstrations from heading towards the Syrian Golan, which is close to the border with Israel, in order not to anger the US and Israel and to avoid any involvement or infiltration of Syrians into Israel, which could result in uncalculated Israeli reactions.
The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria said the Syrian regime issued strict instructions to Palestinian factions in Syria not to organise protests or mass movements that would march towards the border with occupied Palestine.
The Action Group quoted a source in the party as saying that the orders were based on “security and political assessments indicating that any such step may anger Israel and the US, exposing Syria to a risk of military incursion.”
Although Syria’s stance was limited to moral support, Israel attacked major airports in Damascus on 12 and 15 October. Israel bombed the international airports of Damascus and Aleppo with bursts of missiles launched from the Mediterranean Sea, west of Syria, and from the Syrian Golan Heights. Both airports were shut down and deemed out of service, and flights were rerouted to Latakia Airport.
The goal of bombing these airports was to disrupt Iranian supply lines to Syria. For years, such strikes have become common practice. In recent years, Israel has launched hundreds of attacks and air strikes against Syria, directed at Iranian and Hizbullah military sites and targets, weapons and ammunition depots, as well as warehouses at civilian airports.
Israel also bombed Syrian territories in response to the firing of rockets, most likely mortars, towards areas occupied by Israel in the Golan Heights since 1967. The attacks from the Syrian side were not by Syrians but by a Palestinian group called Sarayat Abdeen in the western countryside of Deraa which works with Hizbullah, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rockets fell on agricultural land without significant impact.
Over the past two weeks, Syrian military forces were focused on a military operation against the Syrian opposition in Idlib and its countryside, which killed and injured Syrian civilians in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition in the northwest of the country.
Although they were under fire by Syrian military forces, the people of northern Syria rose up and took to the streets in passionate demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, denouncing Israel’s actions. Angry protesters flew the flags of Palestine alongside the flags of the Syrian Revolution, chanting and carrying banners denouncing the Israeli assault and expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza.
“Between analyses, assessments and operations that have so far remained within the ‘rules of engagement’, Lebanon and Syria have received many threats by Israel and the US. The warnings, delivered through regional and international mediators, threatened repercussions if Hizbullah is involved in any potential confrontations,” explained Suhaib Johar, a writer. “While Hizbullah remains silent and only targets military sites within the Blue Line, Israel has threatened to destroy Lebanon and what remains of the Syrian state.”
The regime does not intend to break its deals with Israel, and wants to keep the Golan front dormant.
The Syrian political leadership knows that it has no capacity for war with Israel. The economic situation is disastrous, the military situation is at its worst, and the Syrian army is busy protecting areas under regime control.
Both regime loyalists and opponents fear that Iran will try to lure Syria into an open war with Israel, especially since the Syrian front has become infiltrated and mobilised by Iranian and Hizbullah militias, and their allies. This would plunge Syria into a senseless and destructive war which it could not endure. The regime also believes it would lead to loss of political and material support by some Arab countries that do not want Damascus to follow Iran’s plans.
The Syrian regime is in an unenviable situation. It is able neither to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and support the axis of resistance, nor to ignore the horrors taking place in Gaza. It will likely continue this loose policy, and limit its reactions to lamentations and condemnation of Israel without intervening to provide assistance to the Palestinians. The status quo will continue: cries and protestations without intervention or open war.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly