An Aleppo merchant said that during the 1967 war with Israel, he and many others wished that Israel would invade Syria and rid the country of the Baath Party. “We were tired of them just four years after the coup,” he said, declining to reveal his name because he never publicly opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The latest Israeli airstrike near Damascus – an overnight raid that officials said hit a cache Iranian of missiles bound for Hezbollah – pleased him. “Removing weapons from the Syrian military’s arsenal will save lives,” he said.
Reactions varied across the board in the country that has long had a highly antagonistic relationship with its neighbor.
On Tuesday, Assad made a rare public statement, saying that Israel supports “terrorists” (a name he often calls the rebel opposition) and that his government was “capable of facing Israel’s ventures.” There was no mention of action against the Israelis.
For some civilians, outrage led to sparks of national unity – something that has not been seen in Syria since the beginning of the conflict.
“This is an attack on the sovereignty of Syrian national territory, regardless of whether it targeted a regime headquarters,” said Manhal Barish, 33, of Homs. “I refuse to accept Israeli intervention in Syrian affairs.”
Others were conflicted. “Israel is an enemy and an ally of the Assad regime. Azaz has been hit by many Scuds, so of course we want that to stop,” said Abu Anas, a fighter with a brigade in Azaz, north of Aleppo. “But Israel doesn’t care about Syrians and Palestinians, and doesn’t want the revolution to succeed.” He speculated that the strike could help Assad retreat from Damascus without leaving strategic weapons for the rebels, and said a raid of this size must have been coordinated with the U.S., and even Russia.
Many Syrians expressed similar skepticism in social media posts. Most see Israel as a natural enemy, an occupier of Syrian and Palestinian territory, and are suspicious of any actions from Tel Aviv.
Twitter and social media was flooded with reactions, much of it anti-Israel – a further blossoming of a sentiment already widely felt in Syria. The popular Syrian affairs commentator Rime Allaf tweeted: “#Syria regime says it considers #Israel strike “a declaration of war”; it must have then considered there was a “state of peace” before. Many of us have openly opposed the criminal #Israel regime & the criminal #Syria regime simultaneously, for years. Try it, it’s easy. And if you think #Israel would ever do anything to help the people of #Syria, or of any Arab country, you don’t know Israel! #Palestine.”
Meanwhile, in Dubai, a publicist from Aleppo sat at an outdoor cafe and shrugged her shoulders, echoing the feeling of indifference that has swept another segment of the population: the civilians who have grown accustomed to frequent airstrikes. “So what?” she said. “Someone else [drops a bomb.] How much worse can it get for people?”
Abu Kinan, a 29-year-old Damascene, called out the media. “The media is overly focused on these raids,” he said. “Frankly, the pictures of the children, the death and carnage [of last week’s massacre] in Banias, should be at the center of peoples’ attention. Israel is only afraid for itself. The raid is nothing but fear of a weapons transfer to Hezbollah, or that weapons will fall into the hands of the rebels. I firmly believe Bashar al-Assad is servile to Israel. These raids show that the regime is only strong when it comes to massacres and ethnic cleansing.”
Others speculated that the Israelis could be taking advantage of the Syrian regime’s current preoccupation with its own civil war. “Israel may be practicing military exercises because it knows there will be no response from Syria or its allies in this time of chaos,” said Sham, 30, also of Damascus. “Others say they were targeting an arms shipment to Hezbollah or chemical weapons. The possibilities are open. A lot of things have also been happening in the Golan Heights. In recent months there has been gunfire and mortar shelling. But this time Israel’s intervention was stronger, because it was in the capital. Yet, I don’t foresee Israeli involvement anytime soon, because America hasn’t changed its position on dealing with the events in Syria.”
She added that the Israeli raids “embarrassed” Assad. “Now the opposition can say that there is coordination between the regime and Israel. But the raids are not only negative for the regime, but also the opposition, since both sides will point the finger at one another. The raids are only in the interest of Israel.”
Assad loyalists called for using military retaliation to send Israel a clear message. Some Syrian commentators aligned with the regime were asked by hosts on popular Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya shows whether they thought the Assad regime would strike Israel, or repeat the tired line of “withholding the right to respond.” The commentators replied that a military response is a popular demand after the latest aggression.
Meanwhile, Sharif Shehadeh, a member of the Syrian parliament, was cryptic in telling Al Jazeera that the regime would respond – quietly, he said, in a manner only Israel would know.