Gaza under attack: Al-Assad is absent despite chronic “resistance rhetoric”

Al-Assad holds a dialogue with Syrian diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry - October 26, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

Gaza under attack: Al-Assad is absent despite chronic “resistance rhetoric”

Al-Assad holds a dialogue with Syrian diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry - October 26, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

Al-Assad holds a dialogue with Syrian diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry - October 26, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)


Hussam al-Mahmoud | Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim

The Syrian regime shows adherence to the narrative of resistance and steadfastness as a position on the current events in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, despite the war it has been waging on Syrian territory for more than 12 years in order to preserve power despite the people’s demands for its overthrow since March 2011.

The war that has occupied the corridors of international politics for more than a decade and is still subject to the consensus of four foreign armies deployed on Syrian territory and others with interests and agents in the same geography has led to the collapse of the Syrian economy, the deterioration of the pound against the US dollar, the continuous soar in prices and the absence of reasonableness between prices and income level.

In addition, for 12 years, the Syrian regime has been waging a war that has not completely subsided against cities and regions outside its control before regaining some of them with iron and fire.

These factors did not stop the regime’s talk about Palestine, the Israeli occupation, and reclaiming the land while holding on to the Iranian compass, all the way to bombing northern Syria under these pretexts.

Being content with mourning and conveying news, up to the launching of shells from Syrian territory towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, did not require raising the Israeli state of alert in the region and transporting reinforcements for the “elite” brigades (Golani and Nahal) from the plateau to the occupied depths, with intense flights of reconnaissance aircraft since October 7, the first day of Operation al-Aqsa Flood by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), as the Syrian regime’s position, until the publication of this file, was limited to this extent.

Enab Baladi discussed with well-informed research fellows, experts, and political analysts the regime’s absence from the Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip, despite Hamas leaders’ demands for greater support from Arab countries, in addition to local calls for action of this kind and another criticizes the regime’s bombing of civilians in northern Syria, and it’s turning away from the southern front with Israel.

Al-Assad has “no say” 

Since coming to power in Syria without elections in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has adhered to the same political discourse that al-Assad the father adopted about Palestine, the centrality of the issue, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, without deviating from the text on the one hand, and without actions that prove the credibility of the text or following it on the other hand.

Although the Gaza Strip constitutes a rapidly flammable fuse regionally, through several battles or military operations in which Israel escalated against the Strip, each operation ended with a ceasefire agreement after human losses and major destruction of infrastructure, but the war that began on October 7, looks different than before in this regard.

The Syrian regime witnessed several Israeli military operations against the Gaza Strip. During the 2008 escalation, al-Assad called for an urgent Arab summit in Damascus at the level of presidents, which was attended by 11 presidents, eight were absent, and Lebanon boycotted it.

At that time, al-Assad stressed the necessity of joint action, gathering, and cooperation and considered that Israel took every opportunity to prove its rejection of peace and Arab initiatives in this regard, and the summit did not provide more than what was expected of it and did not produce anything tangible.

In 2011, there was another Israeli escalation against Gaza, followed by an escalation in 2014 and another in 2021, without a final cessation of skirmishes outside these dates, but what is common between these operations is that the first of them came months after al-Assad was busy with cracking down civil protests demanding his departure.

The rounds of escalation continued at a time when the regime was also busy with large-scale military operations to subjugate opposition Syrian cities and towns with air force and artillery, so the ongoing war came with a decline in the pace of military action in Syria but no halt.

Palestinian survivors of the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip - October 2023 (Reuters)

Palestinian survivors of the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip – October 2023 (Reuters)

In addition to the internal situation of the Syrian regime, which continues the military escalation in Idlib, ignoring the voices of protests in the southern As-Suwayda governorate, the deteriorating living conditions, and the faltering paths for a political solution to the Syrian file on more than one level, a global trend is currently expressing itself, which says “to condemn Hamas,” and these are factors that cannot be ignored in the Syrian context, that may be partly influential in the Syrian regime’s disregard for the war on Gaza.

On October 26, al-Assad made a brief appearance directed inward through a dialogue with a group of members of the diplomatic corps at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During the dialogue, al-Assad accused the key European countries and the United States of adopting one standard in their policy, which is a permanent bias toward their own interests at the expense of the interests of other peoples and countries.

Al-Assad considered this as one of the most prominent reasons that ignited conflicts in “our region, which is now witnessing a war on Gaza, which represents a blatant example of this bias,” he said, considering that what is happening in Gaza has restored the Palestinian issue to its “true place in Arab conscience and consciousness.”

But al-Assad did not raise the ceiling of escalation in this appearance and remained within the framework of general directives repeated whenever necessary regarding the Palestinian cause.

It is surprising that al-Assad has not yet spoken about the crisis because support for Palestine plays a large role in his government’s rhetoric and self-image. But, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Syrian official media have put a lot of effort into this issue, so it is hardly absent from the agenda.

I imagine that the government in Damascus is studying this conflict closely, not least because it could affect Syria directly in various ways, as there is a serious risk of escalation between Israel and Hezbollah. If that happens, the fighting could quickly spread to Syria, and Israel has also intensified its air strikes in Syria, including against Aleppo and Damascus airports.

Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and Middle East analyst

Amer al-Sabaileh, strategic expert and non-resident researcher at the Stimson Center in Washington, told Enab Baladi that the current situation in Gaza is unprecedented, and the United States is currently in its most assertive phase since George W. Bush left power, especially at the level of military support, cover, and direct threat.

Therefore, the positions of all parties may have a high price, especially since the Syrian lands are occupied, and their airports can be targeted by Israel at any time and the bombing continues, and even the American bombing of bases belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria.

US President Joe Biden said at a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in front of the White House on October 25, “There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6.”

Biden added, “That means ensuring that Hamas can no longer terrorize Israel and use Palestinian civilians as human shields. It also means that when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.”

The Israeli escalation also witnessed four political visits to Israel for support and solidarity, conducted by the American President, the Prime Ministers of Britain and Greece, and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who proposed on October 24 that “an International Coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria widens its scope to include the fight against the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.”

“France is ready for the International Coalition against Daesh in which we are taking part in operations in Iraq and Syria to also fight against Hamas,” he told reporters, referring to Islamic State, according to Reuters.

Al-Sabaileh explained that the Syrian regime knows that it is a target in this case because talk about uprooting Hamas leads to Syrian geography, and the regime may follow the theory of not providing pretexts to target it because it knows that it has no ability to confront, that the tools of the internal crisis exist, and that the economic hardships that the regime has been suffering over the past few months are too heavy.

On the security level, the regime is suffering from the strong return of armed organizations, with Turkish talk about the possibility of staying for a long time in some Syrian areas, and the state of dissatisfaction in the coastal region, and anger in the southern governorates, and all of this is accompanied by a deteriorating economic and social situation.

All of these data, according to al-Sabaileh’s opinion, indicate that the regime will distance itself in any way, except perhaps for some unidentified missiles, by allowing some parties to use the borders as a sign of its presence, but at the same time, it is not part of the battle.

A delegation from the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, meets with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus - October 19, 2022 (Syrian Presidency)

A delegation from the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, meets with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus – October 19, 2022 (Syrian Presidency)

Taking a distance from Hamas

Since the beginning of the Israeli escalation, the pace of movements of the “Axis of Resistance and steadfastness” has increased at the level of communication and political meetings with Hamas figures and leaders, whether with Iranian officials or others in the Lebanese Hezbollah.

While the Syrian regime did not announce contact with any political representatives in the movement, its name was not mentioned in the official and pro-media.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian made two separate calls on October 23, with the head of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and the Secretary-General of the Islamic Jihad movement, Ziad al-Nakhalah, to review field developments in the Palestinian territories and the ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza.

The Iranian Foreign Minister met Haniyeh in the Qatari capital, Doha, on October 14, and they discussed the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and “confirmed continued cooperation to achieve the goals of the resistance and the Palestinian people,” according to a Hamas statement.

In turn, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, received the Secretary-General of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine and the Deputy Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, on October 25.

They reviewed the events in Gaza and the ongoing confrontations on the Lebanese border with the occupied Palestinian territories while evaluating the positions taken internationally and regionally and what the parties of the “axis of resistance” must do at this stage to achieve a “victory for the resistance in Gaza,” in addition to agreeing to continue coordination and constant follow-up of developments, according to the Lebanese Al-Manar channel.

“Troubled relationship”

During the current escalation, which has entered its fourth week, al-Assad seemed distant from Hamas, at least to the media, which was paved by the nature of the relationship, which took a different form since the beginning of the revolution in Syria, and the movement’s leaders aligned themselves with the revolution against al-Assad for a decade, before re-evaluating its position and its pursuit of re-alliance with the Syrian regime.

After the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, leaders from Hamas publicly supported the protests that took place in Syria. The movement severed relations with the regime’s government, closed its offices in Damascus, and left Syrian territory.

In 2021, it moved towards rapprochement with the regime again, with Hezbollah mediation; then a delegation from the Palestinian factions visited Damascus to meet with al-Assad on October 19, 2022, and the head of the Arab and Islamic Relations Office in Hamas, Khalil al-Hayya, was among the delegation.

Al-Hayya said, during a press conference following the meeting, “We believe that it is a glorious day and an important day (…) We consider it a historic meeting and a new, renewed start for joint Palestinian-Syrian action.” The two parties agreed, according to al-Hayya, to “turn the page on the past,” and he added that Hamas returned after “individual mistakes” by some of its members that were not approved by its leadership, and it is “convinced of the correctness of this path to move beyond the past to the future.”

Al-Hayya’s words were not reflected in reality later, as al-Assad attacked Hamas leaders on August 9 and described its position as “a mixture of treachery and hypocrisy” because it was claiming resistance and carried what he said was “the flag of the French occupation of Syria” (in reference to the flag of the Syrian revolution), explaining that the relationship today is within the general principle.

Al-Assad said during an interview with Sky News Arabia, “Some Hamas leaders were saying that Syria asked them to stand with us, and this is not true.”

Maan Talaa, a researcher fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime’s policy in dealing with the escalation in Gaza is based on three strategies.

The first is media charging, the second is mobilizing some elites to focus on resistance as a major element of the regime’s media narrative. The third is discipline within the Iranian vision.

Talaa explained that the rhythm of the movements outside Gaza, especially in Lebanon and Syria, requires “one maestro,” who is Iranian, considering that the regime is dealing with complete obedience to Tehran’s directions in this file and does not want to push the conflict outside Gaza anywhere.

Omran’s think tank fellow believes that it is in the regime’s interest to limit the issue to the logic of managing a crisis inside Gaza as much as possible and to apply strategies for managing the apparatuses in all their forms within this geography, for the benefit of the negotiating tools that have begun or will begin in the foreseeable future.

The Syrian regime still wants to separate between the Hamas leadership and the “resistance axis, and therefore, it does not want to give free goals to the Hamas leadership, which al-Assad referred to as being colorful and unreliable, according to Talaa.

On October 10, 2022, the local newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, reported that relations at the current stage relate to the return of Hamas as a “resistance” faction only, and within a delegation representing all the Palestinian factions, without having any individual representation in Syria.

The Syrian regime is keen to identify with the Iranian determinants for managing the current conflict and escalation in Gaza and is keen not to change its own narrative towards Hamas.

Maan Talaa – Research Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies

Talaa said that the regime realizes that any change in the rules of the game on the ground with Israel will be like the last bullet in its head, so it is keen to send clear messages to Tel Aviv that it does not want to change the rules of the game.

The research fellow considered that the Syrian regime is trying to cling to its position and prove that it is a security officer to some extent in a geography that takes into account Israel’s security, and it is keen on that and will continue to maintain the policy of respecting the rules of the game.

Members of the Israeli security cabinet visit the Israeli-Syrian border in the Occupied Golan Heights - February 6, 2018 (Haaretz)

Members of the Israeli security cabinet visit the Israeli-Syrian border in the Occupied Golan Heights – February 6, 2018 (Haaretz)

Is the regime looking for political gains?

Days after the start of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, with an attack carried out by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, on Israeli sites and settlements in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip in southern Palestine, attention turned to the northern Israeli front, where Iranian-backed militias are stationed. The most prominent of which is Hezbollah and other groups with various names spread in Syria.

The United Arab Emirates quickly conveyed an Israeli warning to al-Assad to stay out of the ongoing war and not to allow southern Syria to be used as a launching pad for operations targeting Israel, two sources told the American Axios website, briefing on the Emirati diplomatic effort.

Researcher at the Washington Institute, Andrew J. Tabler, provided, through a brief analysis in this context, advice not to reduce sanctions on the Syrian regime before ensuring that its southern borders can be controlled.

Likewise, Sam Heller, research fellow at Century International Foundation for International Research and Policy, told Enab Baladi that he does not see any benefit for al-Assad from the ongoing war in Gaza, except to the extent that the “axis of resistance” is likely to emerge with a stronger position in confronting Israel.

At the same time, the researcher believes that Damascus cannot take advantage of the status quo to secure relief from sanctions by the US government, considering that the status quo does not allow the regime to play a particularly active role now, especially since the conflict continues.

Heller, who specializes in Syrian affairs, believes that Syria may have had a more important role previously in helping the “axis of resistance” prepare for this type of confrontation, but it is not available today.

Heller considered that the only benefit that Damascus can achieve is actually an indirect benefit if the entire “axis” is able to emerge from this situation stronger in the eyes of Israel, but at the same time, there is no direct benefit that the regime hopes from this situation.

Taking advantage of everything

Badr Mulla Rashid, director of the Raman Center for Studies, believes that the regime is trying to take advantage of everything to perpetuate its killing machine, starting with stealing the baby formula of Syrian children affected by the earthquake, all the way to distributing Amphetamine Captagon drugs to the world, instead of humanitarian aid.

The political researcher believes that the regime will try to increase the amount of any potential benefit from what is happening in Gaza to receive more support from countries that are currently in confrontation with the West, such as Russia, China, and Iran.

At the same time, the researcher believes that the countries themselves have proven over many years that their goal is to further fragment the structure of the Syrian state entity in order to perpetuate their interests as much as possible and to make Syria a tool for blackmailing neighboring countries and the world and nothing more.

On the other hand, the public law expert and researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, Dr. Ahmed Qorby,  considered that the decision to control Iranian militias on Syrian territory is not a Syrian decision since these militias import instructions directly from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and not from the Republican Palace in Syria.

Qorby took the issue of drug smuggling to the countries surrounding Syria as an example of the absence of the regime’s powers to intervene in this file.

Syria is considered a source of smuggling the Captagon drug to neighboring countries, and Iranian-backed militias supervise these operations. Jordan and other Arab countries have previously tried since the beginning of this year to stop the flow of “fenethylline” pills towards their lands by establishing political paths with the Syrian regime, but they have not succeeded in doing so.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian meets with the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, in Doha - October 14, 2023 (IRNA)

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian meets with the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, in Doha – October 14, 2023 (IRNA)

Political reactions are changing

Despite the attempt of all parties, including the United States, to maintain a very disciplined level of non-confrontation, security and military interactions on the ground in Syria and Lebanon are constantly changing following the Al-Aqsa Flood.

In his turn, Mulla Rashid believes that the regime and Iran behind it, along with the militias linked to them, are asked by the Syrians and many peoples of the region, even if “sarcastically,” to intervene to support Gaza, because the people of these countries realize that these regimes have raised slogans of confrontation with Israel to cover up the wars it waged against its own societies.

Despite these facts, complex security events pave the way for the situation to deteriorate as a result of the spread of many sub-state organizations, which prompted Israel to change its air operations policy in the post-Operation Al-Aqsa Flood phase.

While over the past years, Tel Aviv has been targeting sites belonging to Iranian militias and the weapons they smuggle into Syria and Lebanon, and some advanced weapons technology centers, and assassinating some leaders, it has moved to directly and repeatedly target the infrastructure of civilian airports used by the Syrian, Iranian and Russia in Syria.

This restriction comes in order to tighten the economic stranglehold and raise the level of the security threat to elements of the regime and the countries allied with it.

Mullah Rashid says that Israel wants to convey a message to the regime that any attempt to exploit the pressure on Israel from within in order to transfer large numbers of fighters will be a target for its air force.

On October 25, Israeli aircraft targeted the runway of Aleppo International Airport in an attack that was the fourth of its kind in two weeks, which then put it out of service.

The targeting came after the airport returned to service one day ago, without an official announcement, and received a plane scheduled according to the flights of the Syrian Cham Wings Airlines from the Emirati “Sharjah” airport.

On October 22, Israeli aircraft targeted the runways of Damascus and Aleppo airports, putting them out of service. On October 14, Israeli aircraft bombed Aleppo Airport once again, putting it out of service just one day after it returned to work.

Israel also admitted that it targeted Aleppo and Damascus airports on October 12, with the aim of “sending a message to Iran not to interfere in the Gaza war.”

Hassan Kaabia, Deputy Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman for Arab Media, told the Russian Sputnik agency on October 13 that the strikes that Israel directed against Syria when the Iranian Foreign Minister visited Damascus were a warning message to Iran and all terrorist organizations that they should not interfere in the war.

Iran will not risk regime loss

Days after the start of the Al-Aqsa Flood, the northern borders of occupied Palestine began to flare up between Hezbollah and Israel, but this tension did not extend toward the Syrian borders, as the bombing mode took place ineffectively from Syria toward Israel.

Israel did not restrain its army, as it responded by bombing Syrian army positions in Daraa and another that targeted civilian airports in response to two missiles launched from Syria, which landed in an empty area.

Dr. Qorbi of the Syrian Dialogue Center told Enab Baladi that Iran is not actually prepared to ignite the Syrian front against Israel, given Iran’s implicit knowledge that Israel’s influence on the Syrian regime’s survival in power is a positive factor.

The expert believes that Iran’s push for the regime to engage by heating up the front with Israel may lead to “the loss of Bashar al-Assad,” which it does not want in the current circumstance.

He attributed Iran’s sensitivity towards “al-Assad’s loss” to the fact that it had mortgaged its presence in Syria on his remaining in power and invested in the issue on this basis, and therefore, would not risk lifting the Israeli cover on him.

Comparing the situation of its agents in Syria and Lebanon, Tehran is aware that Hezbollah is rooted in Lebanon, and there is no external or internal party that poses a threat to it, except for the possibility of an Israeli military invasion, and therefore heating up the Lebanese fronts remains easier in this regard.

There are no indications of an imminent halt to the Israeli military escalation against Gaza in light of the trend towards a ground invasion of the Strip, which Israel has postponed several times since the beginning of the escalation, and the continuous Iranian statements about the possibility of aggravation of the conflict and the entry of new parties onto the scene, in addition to the Arab warnings about the repercussions of Israel’s continued policy of collective punishment against the Palestinians. All of these factors leave the door open to the possibility of expanding military action on the dormant fronts of Syria and Lebanon.

A delegation from the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, meets with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus - October 19, 2022 (Syria Presidency)

A delegation from the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, meets with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus – October 19, 2022 (Syria Presidency)



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