It didn’t take long after news that Israel had bombed military facilities inside Syria for the Arab League to demand that the U.N. Security Council “act immediately to end Israeli attacks on Syria” over what the League called a “dangerous violation of an Arab state’s sovereignty.”
By contrast, the group — still made up mostly of dictators — hasn’t found time in its presumably busy schedule to say anything about the massacres in Syria of some 77 mostly civilians, including scores of women and children in the coastal city of Banyas and scores more in al-Bayda, which sent thousands of people fleeing in the last few days, adding to the millions displaced by the civil war and the tens of thousands already killed.
Israel’s munitions-destroying operation, still not officially acknowledged by the government, prompted quick official condemnation from across the region. But the real sentiment within Syria and among other Arabs was much more nuanced, and much less predictable than the knee-jerk reaction from the various regimes which, as usual, comes drenched in hypocrisy.
First, we should consider those massacres on the coast. Since they did not involve Israel, they didn’t automatically draw the attention they deserve. The opposition blames the regime of President Bashar Assad for the gruesome killings. Neighboring Turkey agrees.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu rightly raised the alarm, saying Assad has launched “Plan B,” a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” That’s the deeply offensive but chillingly vivid term that describes the elimination of one group to create an area completely inhabited by another. In this case, Turkey accuses Assad of trying to “cleanse” a coastal section for members of his Alawite sect. If true, it means we will see more civilian massacres.
This, of course, garnered little interest from other Arab regimes, occupied with accusing Israel of violating Syria’s “sovereignty.” One can be excused for grinning at the charge, since many Arab League members are actively engaged in funding and arming opposition militias, ignoring Syria’s vaunted sovereignty, as they try to shape the outcome of the war. Qatar and Saudi Arabia come to mind. Then there’s Hezbollah, of course, which has sent thousands of Lebanese men to fight and die for the Assad (which is to say, Iranian) cause.
Israel says its concern is Hezbollah. Its air force apparently targeted precisely what Israeli officials had warned about: “game changing” weaponry destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s close ally and Israel’s arch-enemy.
In the West, major powers such as the United States and Great Britain supported the operation. Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that Israel has a right to defend itself.
In the Middle East, however, even Assad’s enemies formally decried Israeli actions. Assad said the Israeli raids prove the uprising against his dictatorship is a foreign plot. The official opposition statement also condemned Israel’s attack, saying it demonstrated Assad is not defending the country from its enemies.
However, in private, on the ground and on social media, the reaction was much less uniform. Reporters from CBS and NBC said they saw opposition fighters and Syrian refugees cheering the Israeli strikes. Among the thousands of YouTube videos uploaded by the Syrian opposition, you could see the Israeli raids, and hear the voices of those behind the camera praising God in the familiar Arabic expression, Allahu Akbar!
Even those Arabs who celebrated the Israeli attacks, however, poured out their satisfaction in a bittersweet blend that included anti-Israel sentiment and disdain for Assad and other Arab leaders.
CBS’s Clarissa Ward quoted a Syrian rebel saying: “We believe now that Israel is better and kinder than our regime.” But a more common reaction from my reading was this from an Arab blogger, who bemoaned that Israeli warplanes attacked, but was dismayed that “no other Arab or Muslim country did” it first.
For many, there was respect, even approval of Israel’s actions, mixed with embarrassment that Israel could hit Syria with impunity, along with shame that Arab countries, despite the indignant pronouncements from the Arab League, have not done more to stop the ceaseless massacre of Syrian civilians.