Rising tensions across the Levant

 

The last week has witnessed a heightening of tensions between Syria and Israel. Far from being a two-actor tale, this escalation is expression of the delicate balances of power and axes of alliance involving all the actors of the Syrian war

 

In the Middle East’s complex and ever-evolving arena, the past days have been marked by a worrying escalation of tensions between Syria and Israel. This escalation, that is now adding to the troubles the Levant is already facing, is taking place after a series of incidents that have occurred over the last week and that are the most serious cases of direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

It all began last Friday when Israeli warplanes conducted a series of air raids near Palmyra against convoys suspected of transferring weapons to Hezbollah. As a response, the Syrian government fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets and -according to Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese reports- an Israeli drone was even shot down on Monday by Syrian aerial defense systems. Since then, tensions between the two countries have been worsening, with each side warning the other against the risks of retaliation and claiming its resoluteness not to leave attacks un-responded.

 

As these worrisome events unfold in the Levant, understanding the strategic considerations lying behind them, their significance as eventual “game changers”, and their likely future impact on the regional post-war settlement, requires to look at the broader set of actors involved in the Syrian conflict, at the specific regional and national interests motivating each of them, and at the peculiarities of the alliances of which they are part.

 

Of the many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, a major role –both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table- is that played by Russia since its direct intervention in September 2015.  Committed to guaranteeing the survival of its Alawite friend, and allied in its military activities and political moves to Iran and Hezbollah, Moscow is nonetheless determined to oppose any military strategy against Israel that its allies might want to pursue. In particular, it wants to avoid any destabilization on part of its war allies of the border along the Golan Heights (an area bitterly disputed since 1967) since a similar course of action might end up dragging Russia in an unwanted confrontation with Israel. For Russia, indeed, cooperating in the Syrian conflict with Iran and Hezbollah but keeping itself at a distance from their regional ambitions against Israel is the win-win strategy par excellence.

It is this position endorsed by Russia that has led Netanyahu to Moscow more than once (the latest on March 9th), as he sees in Putin an important partner to deter Iran and Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s interests. However, as political analysts and policymakers begin to see an end to the Syrian conflict, the weight of Iran and Hezbollah in negotiating a post-war settlement is something that Russia cannot ignore if it wants to play the role of mediator and peace-broker to which it aspires. In other words, if until now Russia has been able to find a balance between avoiding tensions with Israel over crucial (and to Israel indeed vital) issues such as the Golan border and preserving a united front with its war allies Iran and Hezbollah, continuing to do so is becoming ever more difficult for Moscow.

For its part, Damascus is similarly interested in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from turning the border region along the Golan into a future battlefield that would risk seeing Syria involved in another regional conflict that the country cannot afford (economically, militarily, demographically). However, the Syrian government has become ever more self-confident over the past months and last week’s counter-strikes against Israel not only strengthen the credibility of the regime’s image but also stand as real “game-changers” in the regional balance of power. Indeed, if Israel’s attacks against arms shipments to Hezbollah are nothing new, Syrian assertive response is instead a new factor that has to be dealt with.

On the contrary, Iran and Hezbollah are united in their aspiration to exploit the context of the Syrian civil war, the regional instability triggered by it, and the questionability of the regional borders that it has brought about, to revive the dispute over the Golan area and reignite direct confrontation with Israel. Strong of the successes that they have been achieving during the years of war, Hezbollah and Iran see now themselves in the right military position and with the right diplomatic leverage to destabilize at their advantage the Golan area – an area which is geo-strategically crucial for the pursuit of their security interests in the context of their historical hostility with Israel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, then, there is Israel, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war responds to considerations of national security and, in particular, to the need of preventing any meaningful success for Iran and Hezbollah that might turn them into major and powerful regional actors.  For Tel Aviv, a non-questionable tenet of its security policy is the preservation of the Golan border as defined unilaterally by itself in 1967. Therefore, it perceives as especially worrying the threats posed to the stability of the area by Iran and Hezbollah, and it is to the perception of these threats that one has to look to explain last week’s air raids against weapons convoys headed to Hezbollah.

In addition, Israel aspires to have a say in the post-war regional settlement in order to protect its interests and avert the creation of non-favourable centres of powers along its borders. In this light, last week’s attacks stand thus as Israel’s reminders of its weight and “voice” in the definition of regional balances.

 

In conclusion, as each actor pursues its own interests as peculiarly defined against the prospect of an end of the Syrian war, the escalation between Syria and Israel and the possibility of a post-war confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran over the Golan have the potential to become the most serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium in the upcoming future.

Interestingly enough, the resolution of these challenges will largely depend on Russia’s capacity to maintain even in a post-war context its crucial balancing role and to adapt it to the changing circumstances on the ground.

 

[Picture rights: Israeli Defense Ministry]

 

The undeniable face of apartheid

Israel’s discriminating policies and the need to acknowledge them as first step to countering them

 

It is hard to find a word as evocative of a specific place and time as “apartheid” is of the South Africa of the decades 1948-1994. As one hears or reads the word “apartheid”, the memories of South Africa’s dramatic experience immediately come to mind and images of South African black people’s discrimination, oppression, and humiliation arouse a mixture of compassion, disgust and shame.

 

Yet, apartheid is not limited to last century’s South Africa. The evils that the phenomenon encourages are indeed still much alive in today’s world and –far from having disappeared from – they have merely changed residence and victims.

 

Last week, the UN-linked ESCWA committee published a report entitled “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” that came as a detailed analysis of all the legislations, policies, and practices pursued by Israel against the Palestinian people that constitute crimes of apartheid.

Recalling the definition of apartheid of the International Criminal Court, the term “apartheid” applies to all “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”, and according to ESCWA’s report many of Israel’s policies with regards to the Palestinian people fit indeed into this definition.

 

In particular, the main finding of the report is that Israel pursues different policies in its relations with the Palestinians, giving rise in this way to a four-level apartheid system referred to as “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people”. According to this fragmentation, Palestinians are divided into four groups: Palestinian citizens of Israel against whom “civil law” is deployed to restrict their freedom; Palestinians in East Jerusalem governed by ever more exclusionary “permanent residency laws”; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who live under belligerent occupation; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile who are precluded by law and policy from returning to their homeland. As stated by the report, these apparently different policies are actually part of a broader single policy of apartheid aimed at the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state based on a privileged Jewish majority.

 

Unsurprisingly the report was met with opposing reactions and the distance between them is perhaps the greatest and most disheartening sign of how long the road to equality for Palestinians still is.

If the Palestinian Authority’s endorsement of the report and Israel’s rejection of it were predictable, the decision by UN Secretary General A. Guterres to distance himself from the report has raised some voices of disappointment and several questions over the credibility of the UN system and its capacity to guarantee the respect of international law. On the same line, the US ambassador to the UN declared her country to be “outraged” from the report, sparking further debate not only on the US’s role but –more broadly- on how the international community should react to the report and to Israel’s discriminatory policies.

 

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the international community played a crucial role in uniformly putting pressures on South Africa for the abolition of apartheid, and those universal pressures that saw the world united in one single cause are what made of the defeat of apartheid in South Africa a story of rebirth and hope that belongs not only to the national narrative of South Africa but to the historical narrative of all of us.

Today, the international community should retrieve that same positive role it once played and use towards Israel all the political, diplomatic and economic leverages that are needed to encourage Tel Aviv to reframe its policies and laws towards the Palestinians in conformity with international law.

 

It took South Africa the courage of its people –black and white alike- to give itself a new identity and an inclusive future. Now, it is the turn of the Israelis to show the same courage. It is time for the Israeli civil society to look into the eyes the apartheid system they have created and reinforced over the years and to see that -if they want to defend all the positive values of which Israel can be expression – then that system has to be acknowledged, denounced, and ultimately dismantled.

 

Acknowledgment of a phenomenon is the unavoidable first step of any effort aimed at countering it, and the ESCWA report should have been taken as the opportunity to do exactly that and move towards building a new, positive, inclusive identity for the state of Israel.