Analysis

With Russian Backing, Assad Understands That He Can Do Whatever He Wants

Even if the U.S. carries out another punitive attack at this time, Assad knows that he can do almost anything he feels like, with Russian backing, and that the Americans are on their way out

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al Assad is seen outside eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, SFebruary 28, 2018.
OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS

One cannot ignore the strategic context in which the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad carried out the chemical attack on the rebel enclave in the Douma area in the Damascus suburbs on Saturday night. Just last Wednesday, the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in the Turkish capital, Ankara, for a summit dealing with arrangements dividing up the power and influence in Syria in the face of the Assad regime’s apparent victory over its adversaries.

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump was plying his intention to withdraw American forces from Syria, even if a final decision has not been taken and despite the fact that the idea is opposed by some of Trump’s advisers and generals. Is it any wonder that President Assad or someone who reports to him in the chain of command has interpreted recent developments as a window of opportunity permitting the regime to massacre its civilians with chemical weapons to speed up the process of eliminating final pockets of resistance east of Damascus?

>>After Assad's chemical attack, Israel awaits Trump's next move in Syria | Analysis ■ The preventable war crime: How the West failed to prevent one Syrian chemical attack after another | Analysis >>

As in other instances in which proof of Russian involvement could embarrass Moscow, it’s not clear if Assad got a green light from the Russians to act. As expected, Damascus and Moscow are totally denying that chemical weapons were used. And it’s worth resorting in this regard to the rule that “nothing should be believed until the Kremlin denies it” (just as Russia denied involvement in the attempted assassination in Britain a month ago of former spy Sergei Skripal). With Russian backing, Assad has continued to engage in mass murder of civilians by various means, occasionally restoring to chemical weapons which shakes the West out of its apathy briefly.

<< How Russian military support is secretly airlifted to Syria's Assad

The original sin here, it should be recalled, belongs to the Obama administration, which reconsidered punitive measures against Assad after his regime’s first proven massacre using chemical weapons in the summer of 2013. The agreement reached at the time through Russian mediation to get the Syrian regime to relinquish chemical weapons did in fact dispose of most of Assad’s chemical weapons stocks. But it appears that the regime held onto a certain quantity of usable chemical weapons, in addition to its more frequent use of means that are somewhat less lethal, such as chlorine gas.

Trump is not acting that differently from his presidential predecessor. A year ago this week, Trump did in fact order a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air force base in response to the chemical attack in Syria on Khan Sheikhoun, but it appears that in the process (after the obligatory praise from the media), Trump’s interest in events in Syria had, as a practical matter, come to an end. Even if the United States carries out another punitive attack at this time, Assad knows that he can do almost anything he feels like, with Russian backing, and that the Americans are on their way out.

These events have several implications for Israel. They buttress the assessment about Assad’s self-confidence and his readiness to use any means to restore control over wide swaths of Syrian territory, an approach that will also be seen in the near future in the south of the Syrian Golan. They also again raise doubts about the wisdom of the decision to halt production and distribution of gas mask kits for the Israeli population.

Much of what was decided at the Ankara summit is of concern to Israel. It appears that at the summit, Tehran received backing for a continuation of its efforts to establish a presence in Syria, including in locations near the Israeli border. These are steps that could accelerate Israeli efforts to counter the Iranian presence, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been threatening.

The Gaza border

With one eye on events in Syria, Israel also needs to continue to closely monitor events on Gaza’s border. After 29 Palestinians were killed and hundreds of others wounded in protests, Hamas, has succeeded in returning Gaza’s hardships to the international agenda. But if measured by gains and losses, can Hamas continue to send masses to the border when some of these people are endangering their lives? Can Hamas hope for additional results? (The numbers at the border last weekend were substantially smaller than the weekend before.)

>> Hamas Hijacked the Gaza Protests, Which Are Set to Continue for Weeks | Analysis ■ What's next for Palestinian protests in Gaza: Burning Israeli flags near border fence <<

Against this backdrop, contacts are currently being pursued with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the opposing Palestinian camps – the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – over economic assistance to Gaza, as well as the possible easing of restrictions on Gaza residents leaving the Strip via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. For now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, has halted plans to cut another $105 million a month in assistance to Gaza. And on Sunday, a senior Hamas official told the Israeli Walla news website that an easing of conditions on Israel’s part, such as expanding Palestinian fishing zones off the Gaza coast and granting permits for additional merchants seeking to enter Israel and the West Bank, would bring a change in the “atmosphere” in the protests along the border fence.

From the Israeli angle, economic concessions in Gaza and jumpstarting the stalled reconciliation process between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas could help restrain the violence and move Israel and Hamas away from the military collision course they seem to be on in recent weeks. If that doesn’t happen, Israel will have to find another way to break the stalemate.

The current rules of the game are working to Israel’s disadvantage. The rules provide that Hamas decides where the weekly contact along the border between the two sides will occur. Israel then dispatches soldiers there and responds with lethal force (without using crowd control methods to help halt the clashes). Israel then comes in for international criticism.

The statements made by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Saturday and Sunday regarding the events in Gaza reflect a mix of decisiveness and simplification. He took the international community to task for its hypocrisy for its criticism of Israel, saying that at the same time, the international community is apathetic to the slaughter taking place in Syria. Lieberman also demanded that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit launch an investigation against the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem on suspicion of incitement and hinted that Yaser Murtaja, the Palestinian journalist who was shot to death by Israeli sharpshooters, made use of a drone (and thereby brought his death sentence upon himself). Lieberman also declared that there are no innocent Palestinians in the vicinity of the Gaza border with Israel.

On the other hand, that same Israeli defense minister did not stand in the way of the Israeli army, which on Sunday announced that it would make use of the system in place at army general staff headquarters to examine the recent incidents in which Palestinian civilians, including Murtaja, were killed. The army has no choice but to launch a probe, due to concern that if it failed to investigate the deaths, legal action would be taken against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Even with the prospect of possible Knesset elections in the air, Lieberman understands this well.

But anyone who believes that the probe will end in the indictment and trial of the Israeli sharpshooters is deluding themselves. The public mood in Israel would not permit such a move, which would engender much sharper criticism than the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron who had been subdued and was on the ground.

Ultimately, events along the border fences fall under the responsibility of the army’s general staff headquarters, which has issued open-fire orders that provide wide latitude. Also responsible are the country’s political leadership (Netanyahu, Lieberman and the security cabinet), which approved the orders. The responsibility is theirs a lot more than it is that of some 19-year-old army sharpshooter on the border.