Israel-Gaza war: Why is Assad sitting on the fence?

The Syrian President is notably absent amid the ongoing sequence that has pitted the axis of resistance against Israel.

Israel-Gaza war: Why is Assad sitting on the fence?

President Bashar al-Assad. AFP archive photo

On Dec. 25, Razi Moussavi, a commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force was killed in a strike attributed to Israel. Moussavi was at his home in Saydat Zeinab in the southern suburbs of Damascus when it happened.

Interestingly, on that same day, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enacted a forest protection law.

Although Israel increased its airstrikes on Syrian soil and carried out significant targeted killings, including that of Moussavi and Hamas’ second in command Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut), Assad has maintained a hushed response. Syrian State media made no mention of the assassination of Moussavi and provided minimal coverage of Arouri’s killing.

The Israeli army announced on Jan. 8 that its operation in Beit Jinn, southwest of the Syrian capital, killed Hassan Akkasha, who was described as “responsible for firing Hamas rockets from Syria into Israel.”

Between Oct. 12, 2023, and Jan. 8, a total of 18 strikes, attributed to Israel, targeted Damascus and Aleppo airports, as well as positions and installations of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in the Damascus area.

Despite the ongoing conflict involving Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria seems conspicuously absent from the axis of resistance.

The Syrian front has remained relatively stable, with only a few rockets fired at the occupied Golan Heights.

Despite the regime’s history and Arab nationalist ideology, Syria appears to be on the periphery of this conflict.

Despite the sporadic demonstrations in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Tartous, and Assad’s verbal support for the Palestinian resistance, the Syrian leader has avoided taking the role of champion for the liberation of Palestine.

There are several reasons for this apparent disengagement.

First, Assad lacks the power to take such a stance, regardless of whether he wants to or not.

Iran and Hezbollah, who have influence over regime-controlled areas, can decide on military actions against Israel without consulting Assad.

The military buildup in southern Syria, which had been orchestrated by the late IRGC Quds Force commander Qassim Soleimani until his death in 2020, aimed to create a front against Israel in case of a regional war.

However, the option of fighting from Syria seems unlikely at the moment. Instead, Syria is currently functioning as a logistical base, from which weapons are sent to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

“For the ‘axis of resistance,’ the current strategy is to keep the Syrian regime in the background. Since 2018, Damascus consistently condemns Israeli attacks on its territory and pledges to respond, yet no action follows,” explained Hamidreza Azizi, an associate researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), in a conversation with L’Orient-Le Jour.

Assad’s decisions are also influenced by the strategic calculations of his Russian ally, which maintains a certain level of influence in the country. “Moscow has interests in Syria that it is unwilling to jeopardize,” said Azizi.

Normalization underway?

Assad, who has recently emerged from his pariah status after reintegration into the Arab community last year, faces a delicate situation. He cannot afford to tarnish ties with the Gulf states, who are keen on counterbalancing Iran’s influence in the region.

According to Axios, on Oct. 9, just two days after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the Emiratis cautioned Assad against any involvement.

“There is a risk that all his gains could go up in smoke, so he prefers to look elsewhere,” Azizi said.

On Nov. 11, 2023, Assad participated in the joint emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League on Gaza held in Riyadh. At the conference, he asserted that no country in the region should enter into a “political process” with Tel Aviv until Israel agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza.

Assad likely sees an opportunity in the compromised state of the normalization process between Israel and Arab countries in light of the ongoing war.

But Assad would likely avoid engaging in conflict with Israel even if he had the decision-making authority to do so. Leading a fragmented and ailing country, Assad’s primary concern today is survival.

The country has its share of problems, and frequent protests have erupted due to the dire economic situation that has left over 90 percent of the Syrian population living below the poverty line. Since Oct. 7, the Syrian pound has depreciated from 12,900 to 14,400 against the dollar on the black market.

Assad’s focus is on reclaiming territories still held by rebels, notably in Idlib, which has been subjected to intense bombing since October. While this transpires, global attention is fixed on Gaza.

“Preserving these gains is a more pressing priority than involvement in the Gaza conflict. Assad cannot afford distractions that might jeopardize his precarious position,” said Azizi.

“We cannot demand more from Syria, and we must be realistic. The country has been entangled in a global war for 12 years. Despite its challenging circumstances, it lends support to the resistance and bears the consequences,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Nov. 11, during his second public address since Oct. 7.


Finally, another crucial factor in Assad’s reluctance to join the conflict is his apparent unwillingness to go out of his way for Hamas.

“He’s not entirely convinced that supporting Hamas is worthwhile, even though their relations have improved,” said Azizi.

State media, including the Syrian news agency SANA, has been covering the military operations of the Palestinian resistance without explicitly mentioning Hamas.

“Since Oct. 7, there haven’t been significant supportive actions towards Hamas, and it appears that Hamas leaders haven’t had public meetings with Syrian officials,” Aron Lund, a researcher at the Century International think tank, told The Syria Report.

According to a source within Hezbollah, Assad perceives Hamas and the rebels he is still combating in Idlib as being “the same.”

After initially being welcomed in Damascus in 1999, Hamas leaders distanced themselves from Assad following the Syrian revolution. They relocated to Qatar in 2012, and the Syrian regime accused them of supporting armed opposition groups.

In 2017, Iran and Hezbollah reconciled with Hamas, but it wasn’t until September 2022 — after almost a decade of mutual hostility — that Syria followed suit, upon the encouragement of its sponsor, Iran.

However, Assad’s resentment lingers. As recently as last August, in an interview with Sky News, Assad mentioned that his relationship with Hamas “is part of the general principle” of supporting “every Palestinian party that opposes Israel.” But he indicated that it was “too early for things to go back to the way they were.”

Hamas and Assad are “frenemies” at best, united only by a common enemy. 

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

On Dec. 25, Razi Moussavi, a commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force was killed in a strike attributed to Israel. Moussavi was at his home in Saydat Zeinab in the southern suburbs of Damascus when it happened.Interestingly, on that same day, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enacted a forest protection law.Although Israel increased its airstrikes on Syrian soil...