Thanks to Russian support and American indecision, the Bashar al-Assad regime is now gaining the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. In towns near the Lebanese border, the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies are methodically making progress in the struggle against the Sunni rebels.
With Russia holding veto power at the Security Council, there is nothing the United Nations can do, to the frustration of Washington.
Israel has tried to steer clear of the Syrian civil war, but it did launch a series of airstrikes into Syria near the town of Quneitra on March 19 in retaliation for injuries sustained by four of its soldiers along the border in the Golan Heights – though the perpetrators were probably Hezbollah operatives.
“We hold the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained.
But Israel does not want an escalation of tensions with Damascus. It remains concerned that an ouster of Assad could see power in Syria fall to Islamic militants there, particularly al-Qaeda-linked groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra, and further destabilize the region.
Founded in January 2012, al-Nusra has been described as one of the most aggressive and successful rebel forces in Syria.
A chaotic collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of government troops could provide such extremists with a safe haven to launch operations into Israel itself. In that scenario, the Israeli army could be facing a permanent low-intensity war with various militant groups in the Golan Heights, similar to the situation in the Gaza Strip.
On the other hand, if the regime loses in Syria that will weaken Iran, the only country posing a potential existential threat to Israel. The fall of Assad’s regime would remove Syria as a conduit for weapons flowing from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
And if Iran loses Syria as an ally, it would mean the end of the Iranian bid for Arab hegemony, because the majority Sunnis will have nothing to do with the Shi’a theocrats in Tehran.
The Iranian Kayhan newspaper, which usually reflects the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote that Iran should draw lessons from the Crimean crisis and learn from Russia’s conduct:
“From a national perspective, Russia is helped by Iran in addressing most of its security and diplomatic concerns, and in return Iran is helped by Russia’s support on the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, nuclear, and other issues. Furthermore, in this affair Russia is in conflict with our enemies, that is, the West. That in itself means we must be pleased with the defeat of our enemies, even if we have criticism of the Russian side.”
Still, Russia and the United States are continuing to co-operate in pressuring Syria to comply with its pledges on chemical weapons. Under a United Nations Security Council resolution that was supported by both Russia and the United States, the entire Syrian chemical arsenal must be destroyed by June 30.
Nearly half of Syria’s chemical stockpile for weapons use has now been removed from the country.
“The latest movements increased the portion of chemicals that have now been removed from Syria for destruction outside the country to more than 45 per cent,” said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the group that is collaborating with the United Nations to ensure the arsenal’s destruction.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.