BEIRUT: Syrian opposition leaders and rebels on Friday slammed President Bashar Assad for not responding to a rare Israeli airstrike near Damascus, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the Jewish state.
The opposition’s sharp reaction underlines how those seeking to topple the Syrian leader might be more prepared to tangle with Israel if they came to power.
Wednesday’s Israeli airstrike that U.S. officials say hit a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons bound for the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group also has fueled rage among many Syrians who say they now must fear warplanes from both Assad’s forces and Israel.
“Assad never once in his life stood up to Israel,” said Kamal Labwani, a prominent Syrian dissident and member of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group of those trying to oust Assad. “All he ever did is ‘reserve the right to retaliate’ but he never retaliated against anyone other than the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army.”
Syria’s army chief of staff, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, warned Friday against testing his country’s capabilities.
That was a day after Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, said Damascus “has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation,” but that it was up to the relevant authorities to choose the time and place.
The comments reflected increased tension between Syria and Israel.
Up to now, the Jewish state has refrained from actions that could be interpreted as intervention in Syria’s civil war. But the Syrian government’s overall response to this week’s airstrike was seen as passive, and most Syrians said they did not expect their military to retaliate.
“I am 100 percent sure the regime will not retaliate,” Mosab, a rebel fighter told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. The fighter, who was deployed near the Syrian capital, Damascus, declined to give his full name or precise location for security reasons.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with largely peaceful pro-reform protests and developed into a civil war that the United Nations says has killed more than 60,000 people.
The Syrian government maintains that there is no uprising in Syria but a conspiracy against the country because of its support for anti-Israeli groups.
Assad and his late father, Hafez, who together have ruled Syria for four decades, have often tried to draw political legitimacy from the country’s combative stance toward Israel.
The Assad regime has long sheltered radical Palestinian groups and has facilitated Iran’s assistance to militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 war, and Syria demands the area back as part of any peace deal.