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June 3, 2013

Assad's strategy to deter neighbours

Daniel Nisman

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After two years of increasing violence along its border with Syria, Turkey would be within its rights to go to war with the Assad regime.

On May 11, top officials in Ankara blamed one of the worst terrorist attacks in their country’s history squarely on Damascus. The car bombs that killed more than 50 people in the town of Reyhanli marked the second such attack near the border and were preceded by numerous incidents of cross-border shelling, the alleged downing of a Turkish warplane last June, and an unprecedented refugee crisis in Turkish territory.

The spillover of violence and the flood of refugees isn’t just a side effect of the Syrian conflict — it is a core component of the Assad regime’s strategy to deter its neighbours from intervening in its deadly crackdown on rebels.

The Reyhanli bombings were a flex of Bashar Assad’s military muscle, which is bolstered by a regionwide array of loyal proxies with a reach far beyond that of the Syrian Army. The administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed one of these proxies, the leftist Turkish People’s Liberation Party/Front, for the May 11 attacks after arresting nine Turkish nationals tied to the group. The front’s leader, Mihrac Ural, has also been linked by Ankara to the killing of 62 Sunni civilians in Syria’s coastal region.

Whether or not the Reyhanli bombings were ordered directly from Damascus, their effectiveness in deterring Turkey from intervention in Syria is significant. Numerous protests have since been held in Turkish cities, with demonstrators blaming Ankara’s support for Syrian rebels as the instigator for the attacks. Meanwhile, hostility toward the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s ethnically diverse southern provinces has surged.

The echo of the Reyhanli blasts is undoubtedly intended to reach Israel and Jordan, forcing their governments to reconsider venturing any deeper into Assad’s backyard. As Turkey shies away from further involvement and Lebanon struggles to remain neutral, Israel and Jordan have become major factors in the Syrian conflict. Jordan serves as a funnel for weapons from Sunni-Arab Gulf nations and is a key enabler in a rebel campaign to establish a safe zone in southern Syria. Meanwhile, on May 5, Israeli warplanes penetrated the Assad regime’s stronghold on Damascus’ Qassioun Mountain, destroying missiles destined for Hezbollah and killing dozens of elite Republican Guard troops.

The Assad regime has threatened to retaliate against Israel through its web of allies and proxies. Both the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the far more fearsome Hezbollah have pledged to take the fight against Israel to the long-dormant Golan Heights. Lebanese media recently reported that Hezbollah has deployed 40 of its operatives to the Golan Heights to possibly set the stage for a future attack.

The situation on the Golan Heights offers ideal conditions for a terrorist strike. The presence of multiple militant groups, coupled with the increasing absence of the Syrian military, would complicate any effort to attribute responsibility for an attack. This makes Israel’s efforts to legitimatize subsequent retaliation against Hezbollah’s positions in Lebanon or the Assad regime far more difficult. A wave of attacks from the Golan Heights would leave Israel with no option but to enter Syrian territory and establish a buffer zone between its citizens and the multitude of jihadist rebels and Assad proxies on the other side. As far back as 2012, reports surfaced that plans had been drawn up in Tehran to lure the Israel Defense Forces into a resource-draining occupation in the event of Assad’s fall.

With the Israel Defense Forces’ 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon still fresh in the collective Israeli mindset, it is no coincidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration sought to de-escalate tensions with the Assad regime following the Damascus airstrikes. Back-channel messages were reportedly sent reiterating that Israel would stay out of the Syrian conflict as long as weapons transfers to Hezbollah were stopped. Meanwhile, rebels in southern Syria have been forced out of captured towns along the strategic Damascus-Amman highway, claiming that expected weapons deliveries from Jordan never arrived. The flow of refugees has strained Jordan’s economy, forcing King Abdullah II to tighten control of the border area, while insisting on a political solution that “prevents the partition or collapse of Syria.”

From the conflict’s outset, Assad has warned that the collapse of his regime would engulf the Middle East in chaos, cynically alluding to the proliferation of Islamic extremists. These are the same extremists whom Assad allowed into Iraq to launch sectarian attacks during the U.S. occupation and the same extremists who have become increasingly influential inside Syria. If Assad’s network of proxy fighters is any indicator, his regime is not a defender of regional stability, but its main inhibitor.

Despite his depleted military and near-total diplomatic isolation, Assad continues to cling to power by bullying his neighbours and their allies away from decisive action that could bring an end to the conflict. The sooner the international community confronts this mafia-styled strategy, the sooner stability will return to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Daniel Nisman is the intelligence director of the Middle East and North Africa section at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and security risk consulting firm. (The New York Times)

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