Actually, Why Retaliate to Israel’s Strikes?
Actually, Why Retaliate to Israel’s Strikes?
Much time has been spent asking, after each of Israel’s weekly airstrikes on Syrian territory: Why does the Syrian regime refrain from retaliating?
The fact is that hardly a week goes by without an Israeli airstrike on various targets in Syria, mostly those operated by the IRGC or the Lebanese and Iraqi militias that take their marching orders from it. The targeted areas range from Aleppo and its airport in the north to the regions neighboring the Golan Heights in the south. And Israel makes use of its diverse arsenal of missiles- long-range, precision, “smart,” and others, which allows the attacking planes to maintain a distance, usually firing from over Lebanese skies or the sea. The Israeli government has generally followed a strategy of claiming responsibility anonymously, with details about the strikes reported by Western journalists or unnamed sources.
The Syrian regime cast aside the threats it used to regularly make in the aftermath of every airstrike since 2012 after they became the subject of ridicule for friends and enemies alike. Moreover, the Syrian side’s lack of enthusiasm for avenging this humiliation is no secret. Israeli newspaper Haaretz did not exactly make shockwaves with its report that President Bashar al-Assad had prohibited former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, as well as his successor General Esmail Qaani, from launching attacks on Israel from Syrian territory.
Another Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, added that Assad had asked the Russians to pressure the Israelis to refrain from striking vital Syrian facilities like the airports of Damascus and Aleppo. Both are hit by Israeli strikes as soon as any Iranian plane that the Israelis believe is delivering arms to Lebanese Hezbollah approaches. The paper has also reported that Israel had assured Assad that- even if some Syrian regime sites have been hit and this may embarrass the Syrian authorities, undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens, and discredit them as a member of the Axis of Resistance- Israel has no intention of weakening his regime or his army, and they are not the targets of Israeli military operations, which seek Iranian interests. While skepticism regarding the integrity of Israeli sources is legitimate, it is major figures associated with the Axis of Resistance that encourage us to read Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth and reiterate their esteem for the Israeli press day and night.
The assessment of the ruling regime in Damascus regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights helps explain this regime’s refusal to take any steps besides hitting “enemy targets” with air defense missiles when Israel strikes. Since the defeat of 1967, the Syrian regime has adopted a utilitarian reading of the situation, with the Baath regime declaring victory after the ceasefire and losing the Golan Heights because the war “did not bring down the progressive regime in Damascus.” This mindset continues to prevail among the current leadership 55 years after the Israelis occupied an entire Syrian province: what matters in this conflict is how it affects the stability of the regime and the privileges of its elites.
That explains Assad’s rejection of any Iranian attack targeting Israel despite the material and human costs of the Jewish state’s attacks. Escalation against a superior enemy would inevitably be met by retaliation that exacerbates the trepidation and exhaustion plaguing the regime after over a decade of the intentional and systematic destruction of mythical proportions in Syria.
Reading the memoirs of US officials who mediated the US initiative for a peace deal between Damascus and Israel unequivocally affirms this view. US diplomat Frederic Hof’s book Reaching for the Heights, which was published a few months ago, is the latest example. What matters, as far as both Assads- Hafez and Bashar- are concerned, is ensuring the regime’s survival, safeguarding its influence in neighboring countries, and making gains for elites. Decisions on war (in name only) and peace are made within the regime’s broader decision-making framework that is concerned only with its survival.
No political actor in the region is unaware of this fact. No rational observer cannot see that the regime’s “angry responses” to the Israeli airstrikes will not go beyond rhetoric. This is true regardless of how deeply humiliating, like those that put Damascus International Airport out of order time after time, these attacks can be.
Syrian society is exhausted and wounded; it can hardly pick itself up. And the Arab states have grown weary of the games the regime in Damascus plays. Meanwhile, those investing in the conflict with Israel can find other arenas near and far, like the At Tanf military base, the Lebanese borders, or the negotiating table in Vienna, from which to send the messages they want to deliver and raise the number of planes sending its allied militias weapons.
Why would Assad bear the costs of retaliation?