As the civilian death toll in the Gaza strip climbed past 800 on Friday, the global spotlight shifted from Syria to the Israeli ground offensive in Palestine. The reverberations are being felt in Syria, with which Israel shares a border – and a contentious history.
"Now that the Arab-Israeli conflict is back in the spotlight, [Bashar] Assad is back in his comfort zone. People around the world are paying attention to Gaza, and not what's happening in Syria," says Nadim Shehadi, the former director of Oxford University's Center for Lebanese Studies and now a fellow at Chatham House focusing on Syria and Palestine.
He adds, "Throughout the Arab world, you do find the insinuation that what's happening in Gaza is a diversion from what's happening in Syria and that Hamas is now playing Iran's game. Hamas has Syrian and Iranian-made rockets, and those are the long range ones that are really affecting Israel – the ones that can reach Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem."
We asked Shehadi to weigh in on what he says is Assad's history of using the Israeli conflict for political gain, and how the fresh round of violence in Gaza could impact Syria's border:
Syria Deeply: How is Assad reacting to the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza City? With its biggest ally, Iran, involved in Gaza, what does this mean for the regime?
Nadim Shehadi: A regime like Assad's is comfortable with and derives much of its legitimacy from the Arab-Israeli conflict and has none when it comes to facing the revolt that began in Syria in 2011. The regime has tried many times to revive or rekindle the old flame of the Arab-Israeli conflict since then as a means of diverting attention from its own internal conflict, and it has proved surprisingly unsuccessful. Those old tricks don't work on the Syrian population anymore.
One example was on May 15, 2011, when there were two demonstrations: one that originated in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, near Damascus, and one from Saida, Lebanon. They were both diverted to the Israeli border and both were shot at by the Israelis resulting in casualties. What is relevant is that the anger of the population was directed at the regime – not just the Israelis – although there was of course anger towards the Israelis as well. At Yarmouk, there were slogans against the regime in the funerals of those who fell at the border. The perception was that the regime was trying to flare up the conflict with Israel in order to divert Syrian's attention from the Syrian revolt.
Now, you often find that among the supporters of Assad, the narrative always includes the regime's role in the resistance block against Israel; whereas Assad's opponents mock it and refer to the regime's lack of response to Israeli raids and to the fact that Syria had a peaceful border with Israel since the mid-1970s. Part of the underlying tension is a revolt against the regime's resistance narrative. It's a constant theme: the regime uses the Arab-Israeli conflict to legitimize itself, and the opposition ignores it and pushes for demands unrelated to it.