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It is southern Syria, smart guys!

Waiting for Washington’s position toward old nationalist Kurdish aspirations, at least in northern Syria, more interest is silently being accorded to what may be the most serious flashpoint in the Middle East today: Southern Syria.

Recently, Asharq Al-Awsat published Israeli viewpoints on the region, extending from Albu-Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, all the way westward to the cease-fire line in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, including Al-Tanf checkpoint on the Jordanian border. What was expressed was quite interesting, although what we have learned from the experience is that Israeli policy is never what is being said, but what takes place on the ground.

Often, most public pronouncements are just attempts to divert attention, if not to mislead and bluff. So for now, let us leave what is being said and concentrate on the facts in southern Syria. The first is that the regime, whether directly or via allied village-defense vigilante groups, is well-established near the southwest corner of the country. 

Israel accepts the principle of village-defense groups for humanitarian and sectarian reasons, as long as it does not have to pay a political or strategic price for their existence. But there is a military presence too for the regime and Hezbollah — and subsequently Iran — on the eastern slopes and foothills of Mount Hermon. Silence here means Israel does not feel that such a presence is a threat.

The second fact is that in southwestern Daraa province exists an enclave that comprises a few villages and is controlled by Daesh. This enclave is supposed to be geographically isolated from the rest of Daraa, which would make it be vulnerable to air attacks, yet neither the regime — which has already destroyed Aleppo, Homs and many Damascus suburbs — nor Israel has attacked it.

The third fact is that Israel, which in December 1981 officially annexed the Golan, considers it indivisible Israeli territory. Since then, the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and various Israeli leaders were engaged in political maneuvers regarding the liberation of the Golan. Both parties did their best to justify why they were running away from a solution. 

Among the justifications was the disagreement on the future of Al-Batiha and Al-Himma lands on the shores of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), and the borders drawn by the tidal water level of the lake. 

An Arab hydrologist who knew a lot about this issue once told me that Assad was keen to maintain the “no war, no peace” situation — including keeping the Golan under Israeli occupation — because this would continue to portray his regime as a bastion of “steadfastness and confrontation” against Israel, and thus spare him the risks of opening up to true democracy, freedoms and proper constitutional rule. 

On the opposite side, Israel would benefit from the Syrian regime becoming a fake umbrella for lip-service to “steadfastness and confrontation,” while serving Israel strategic interests.

Israel would benefit from the Syrian regime becoming a fake umbrella for lip-service to steadfastness and confrontation, while serving Israel strategic interests.

Eyad Abu Shakra

The fourth fact is that since the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, the Golan cease-fire line has been the calmest of all regional fronts. Animosity toward Israel was never translated into military action except in Lebanon, as part of qualifying to become part of the Shiite Crescent; the Palestinian territories, with the intention of fomenting a Palestinian civil war; and in popular television series and patriotic songs. 

It is well known that the Syrian army entered Lebanon in 1976 to crush Palestinian resistance groups with a US green light and Israeli blessings. The only thing that changed since then was the details of the unwritten accords of coexistence between Damascus and Tel Aviv in 1982, when the Israelis swept through Lebanon. 

But things went back to normal after overturning Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Assad’s participation in liberating Kuwait with the US-led coalition was rewarded by the Americans — and Israelis — by giving him yet again a free hand in Lebanon. The result has been the liquidation of the Lebanese state in favor of Hezbollah’s dominance.

The fifth fact is that Israel has accepted, since withdrawing its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, to coexist with a Lebanon run by Hezbollah, which is an organ of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Israel — which is well aware of what Hezbollah is, to whom it is connected and what it has done to the Lebanese fabric — was keen in 2006 to gift it another political victory in order to enhance its nationalist ‘legitimacy.’ 

That year, Israel launched a devastating war to ruin Lebanon’s infrastructure but not Hezbollah’s. After that, a tacit understating emerged by which it became clear that the pro-Iran militia could use its military arsenal anywhere within Lebanon and the Arab world but not against Israel.

The sixth fact is that after fighting in Syria in support of Bashar Assad’s regime alongside other Iranian-led Shiite militias, Hezbollah was treated by Israel the same way the Assad regime was being treated: Through coded messages. Israel has so far regarded the survival of the Assad regime and Hezbollah as an Israeli strategic goal, but under Israeli conditions. 

Hence, as we have noticed recently, Iran and its henchmen and puppets have put aside fiery rhetoric and military marches for the liberation of Jerusalem, while using the deadliest weapons to ‘liberate’ Syrian cities and villages from their inhabitants and occupying four Arab capitals.

As a result, if we look at what remains of Syria, we cannot fail to see that the ‘de-escalation zones’ format hides a grand plan in which the Iranian Crescent plays a central role. And if messages from Washington and Moscow to Turkey and the secessionist Kurds appear contradictory, Israel’s silence toward the situation in southern Syria does not mean Tel Aviv is disinterested.

Israel, which has implicitly defended Assad in Western capitals, is now expecting its share in not only the Syrian cake but also the regional one.

 

Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.