It is abundantly clear that Israel has been involved in every Arab (and several non-Arab) civil and inter-state wars over the decades. There is hardly a civil war in which Israel was not criminally involved on the side of the most reactionary party. From Yemen to Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, Western Sahara, Oman and Iraq, Israel has consistently involved itself – usually on the side of a repressive regime, or a repressive army or militia. Israel has been involved in the affairs of Lebanon since the 1950s, at least.
Israel has also been involved in Syrian affairs for decades. The story of Elie Cohen has been told too many times, and the failure of Cohen – it is rarely mentioned in the Western heroic portrayal of him that he was after all caught, which is not the ultimate prize for any spy – has been covered up in all those pro-Israeli movies and books. Cohen basically opened a brothel in Damascus on behalf of the Mossad, and hoped that drunken officers and low-level government clerks would open up late into the night. It has never been established that Cohen really obtained crucial secrets as was claimed. And Arab enemies of Amin Hafiz [leader of the 1963 coup that brought the Baath party to power in Syria and subsequent president] and Israeli propagandists both promoted the false story about links between Hafiz and Cohen.
Israel, of course, regards the eruption of civil war in any Arab country as a golden opportunity to enter the scene, usually with the assistance of one of the two sides of the conflict. Syria has not been as safe as Lebanon has been for Israeli espionage, but this may soon change. There are already Western media reports about the arrival of Mossad terrorists in Syria, through the entrances that are run by Turkey and their client, the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has had direct and indirect relations with Israel for years. They have been allies of the Jordanian King Hussein (by his own admission in a famous televised speech that Hafez al-Assad compelled him to make) and of the pro-Israeli right-wing militias in Lebanon during the civil war. Israeli weapons reached the Muslim Brotherhood militias through the Phalanges in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It is too early to write about the Israeli role in the Syrian conflict but American officials – for purely domestic reasons – are quite transparent that Israel is consulted on every Western decision concerning Syria. In fact, the Israeli factor may be behind the American preference for the preservation of the Syrian regime, but without Bashar al-Assad. Israel remains unclear whether it wants a change of regime or not, although the proliferation of radical Islamist groups in Syria may have made Israel nervous, and Israel may have pressured the US to abstain from delivering shipments of arms to Syria. Israel, however, may be supporting certain elements of the armed opposition groups in order to gain a foothold among them.
The recent Israeli attack on Syria is not its first, and it came on the heels of the Israeli bombings of Sudan, and Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine. The objective of the Israeli bombing is not clear and the Syrian regime is typically circumspect about the Israeli target or targets. The Syrian regime typically resorted to its language about waiting to pinpoint the “time and place” of Syria and said – yet again – that it reserves the right to respond to Israeli aggression. There was little condemnation from the side of the exile Syrian opposition, despite whispered mumblings here and there and some effortful words by a few individuals who claimed that they are not happy about the Israeli bombing (the lip service that the Syrian March 14 movement pays to the cause of enmity towards Israel is a replica of the Lebanese March 14 version).
And the Syrian regime, despite its pathetic lack of a response to past acts of Israeli aggression against Syria, is now in a more difficult position. If it does not act in response to Israeli aggression, it will be quite embarrassing for the regime to justify the use of fighter jets and helicopter gunships in its internal conflict (for purposes of regime preservation), but not for defending Syrian territory against Israeli attacks. The Syrian army, which has by and large remained loyal to the regime, could face major defections in protest against this regime reluctance. But if the regime responds to Israeli attacks, Israel can inflict severe damage to the military power of the regime which is needed to protect the regime. Either way, the regime could suffer, although it would change the contours of the conflict if it were to respond against Israel in a major way.
Israel must be nervous as the earth all around it shakes vigorously. The region today is quite different from the quiet environment that Israel has been accustomed to since the US and Sadat removed the Egyptian army from the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the changes in the region are not complete and the earth will continue to shake until some form of political or maybe revolutionary transformation takes shape. It is not easy to predict the final outcome, but it is possible to predict that the region will increasingly look unsafe for Israeli occupation and aggression. That in itself is good news.