All Roar No Bite: Israel and Assad the Cowardly Lion

The complex relationship between Syria and its neighbors, especially Israel, has been shaped by a history of military conflicts and strained relations. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Syria and Israel have been in a “state of war”, engaging in several armed conflicts, including the First Arab–Israeli War in 1948, the Third Arab–Israeli War in 1967, and the Fourth Arab–Israeli War in 1973.

In relation to Lebanon, Syria has had a contentious history which culminated with the Syrian invasion of its western neighbor by Hafez Assad, in 1976. Syria’s occupation lasted for 29 years and ended with the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005 by Hafez’s son Bashar.

Looking to the north is Turkey, yet another nation with a history of conflict, including the Syrian Crisis of 1957 and the decades-long hosting of the PKK by Hafez Assad, a terrorist organization at war with Turkey. The PKK received support, training, and sanctuary in Syria from where they would launch attacks into Turkey. While eventually expelled, the YPG, YPJ, and SDF – PKK affiliates – remain in control of parts of northeastern Syria contiguous to Turkey’s border and remain at odds with the country.

(Syria Out Lebanese Rally) [AP]

In the south lies the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan which has also experienced strained relations with Syria including Syrian intervention in the Jordanian Civil War in 1970, clashes between Jordanian and Syrian forces along the border, and an ever-increasing series of attacks and cross-border incursions by Syrian drug and weapons traffickers resulting in several Jordanian airstrikes. This brief overview highlights the complexity of Syria’s military conflicts with its neighboring countries, shaped by a range of political, historical, and regional factors.

In the cases of Turkey and Jordan, Syria has a history of providing a haven for various terrorist and criminal groups that launch cross-border raids, while launching a full-scale military invasion into Lebanon that lasted nearly three decades.

Although the Syrian Arab Republic has officially been at war with Israel since 1948 the rule of Bashar al-Assad has seen no military mobilization versus their neighbor, or even any efforts to regain Syrian territory lost in previous wars. Despite the Assad regime’s long-standing “state of war” with Israel and loud rhetoric, the country under Bashar has a historical lack of action against Israel. The nature of the regime’s opposition to Israel has been a subject of much debate and analysis as the last 20 years have been among the most peaceful between the two nations.

Maintaining the Status Quo

To better understand why this unilateral ceasefire exists, despite the constant drumbeat of war, one has to see whether there is not a greater interest on the part of one or both parties. Dr. Edy Cohen Ph.D. wrote, in a BESA Center Perspectives Paper, “(Israel) needs… strong, stable rulers who will control their armies and prevent both the firing on, and infiltrations into, Israeli territory. Both the senior and junior Assads succeeded in this and continue to do so to this day, despite the many reports in recent years about Israeli attacks in the heart of Syria.”

(Israeli aistrike near Damasscus Feb 11, 2022) [File Photo/AFP]
The benefits for both the Assad regime and Israel in maintaining the “status quo” are significant. Israel’s evolving stance towards Assad’s rule, from initially condemning the violence in Syria to later reconciling with his continued leadership, reflects a strategic shift. According to Haaretz, analyst Zvi Bar’el, Israel’s cooperation with Russia, its attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, and its desire to limit Iran’s operations in the region have led to a de facto alliance with Assad. Its strategic interests, including the need to keep the border quiet and limit Iran’s influence in Syria, drive Israel’s preference for Assad’s continued rule.


However, there are other reasons that the regime, despite Iranian influence, would not strike Israel. According to a January 2024 study by the Soufan Center, there are two primary motivators precluding any substantive response by Assad to Israeli attacks. Firstly, the presence of various opposing factions within Syria that are capable of posing threats to the regime should Assad open a new front with Israel. Secondly, the fact that the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict is beneficial to the regime’s propaganda machine as they capitalize on the situation to improve domestic and regional political position.

The study states that “The Assad regime undoubtedly calculates that direct Syrian participation in the Hamas-Israel war would prompt Israeli action that could decisively weaken the military’s ability to protect Damascus’ grip on power.”

The Soufan study notes that “Although Israeli strategists are concerned about the uncertainties of a successor regime in Syria, many Israeli leaders would welcome the accession to power of a Syrian leader unbeholden – or even opposed – to Tehran,” and Assad likely realizes should he risk a confrontation with Israel it may provide an opening at a regime change that is more suitable as a potential Israeli ally than his own.

Idlib Instead of Israel

Since the outbreak of the recent Israel-Gaza conflict in October of last year there have been concerns that violence could spread in the region especially due to Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria. However, unlike Lebanon, where Hezbollah has engaged in conflicts with Israel, Assad and Iranian elements in Syria have not been at the forefront of direct military action against Israel. The border between Syria and Israel has remained relatively calm compared to the Israel-Lebanon front, with only sporadic incidents of rocket fire from Syrian territory prompting limited Israeli airstrikes. This contrast raises questions about the Assad regime’s true commitment to opposing Israel through direct military confrontation.

As noted by Aron Lund in an article for The New Humanitarian, “Syria is not at the forefront of the action. A few volleys of rockets from Syrian territory have been reported… prompting Israel to respond with additional airstrikes. Even so, the border between the two countries remains conspicuously calm compared to the Israel-Lebanon front.”

It was said of Hafez, “A lion in Lebanon, a rabbit in Golan” characterizing his aggression and ferocity in invading his neighbor while showing deference and temerity towards Israelis in failing to even attempt reclaiming the Israeli-occupied Golan heights. Similarly, the son Bashar attacks the Syrian civilians in the liberated north in lieu of retaliating against Israel.

The Assad regime’s Ministry of Defense attempted to justify these attacks against civilians with ludicrous and unsubstantiated claims that they were, striking “Israeli” proxies in northern Syria similar to how Israel strikes Iranian assets in Assad-controlled areas. Saying, “It is part of the ongoing approach to supporting the extremist terrorist groups that the Syrian army is fighting in the north of the country, and which constitute an arm of the Israeli entity.”

In the wake of the October 7 operation by Hamas and the devastating destruction unleashed by Israel on the civilians, especially women and children, of Gaza the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies have not made any attempts to intervene nor retaliate, choosing instead to likewise attack the civilian population in northwestern Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo, where women and children are the majority among causalities. “October saw the war’s worst escalation in four years,” says Lund, “as Assad’s military and its Russian allies launched a major campaign of airstrikes in Idlib.”

Empty Rhetoric and Political Posturing

Experts have highlighted the Syrian regime’s use of the Palestinian cause for its own political purposes, as a means to deflect attention from its domestic human rights violations. The regime’s dependence on Iran and Russia, and its reluctance to launch a direct military front against Israel, further underscore its prioritization of its own survival and geopolitical interests over the liberation of Palestine.

(Israeli-occupied Golan Heights) [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]
Nasrin Akhter, a PhD candidate at St Andrews University researching relations between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria told Al Jazeera, “There is widespread realization in the Arab world that the Syrian regime is simply championing the Palestinian cause for its own political purposes, in order to deflect attention away from its own domestic human rights violations.”

Joseph Daher, an academic and expert on Hezbollah and Syria, mentioned in the same article that, “The key issue [for the Assad regime] is not the liberation of Palestine, but its own survival and geopolitical interests.”

The Assad regime’s approach to its neighbors, particularly Israel, has been characterized by a combination of empty rhetoric, political posturing, and strategic calculations. Despite maintaining a “state of war” with Israel, the regime’s actions have often fallen short of direct military confrontation, raising questions about its true commitment to opposing Israel. Assad’s prioritization of his own survival and geopolitical interests, as well as the exploitation of the Palestinian cause for political purposes, continues to color the dynamics of relationships with neighboring states.


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