The Syrian Civil War and the Spread of Anti-Israel Hatred
When I was a young student in the Middle East, signs of hostility toward Israel were everywhere. In Cairo, there were rallies to promote resistance to the Jewish state. In Syria, state TV promoted ludicrous lies about Israel, and Stars of David were often found drawn on the streets of Damascus so that pedestrians could stamp their foot on them.
Even in the relatively liberal Lebanon, during my time at the American University of Beirut, a professor was virtually chased off campus for having “collaborated” with Israeli academics on scientific research, and copies of Mein Kampf were prominently displayed in every “cool” Beirut bookstore.
This public enmity never seemed to translate to policy though. The Assad regime in pre-war Syria would insist that Facebook needed to be shut down so that the “Zionist dogs” couldn’t spy on the noble Syrian population. In Egypt, even as government-influenced media outlets promoted the most anachronistic stereotypes of Jews, the Mubarak government was relatively cooperative with Israel on matters of terrorism and security in the Sinai. Only in southern Lebanon, where resistance to Israel had actual kinetic meaning, did one get the sense that there was an actual conflict playing out.
Given this background, I have always been sympathetic to the notion that Iranian hostility to the Zionist state was mostly for show.
Israel is a useful enemy for an Islamic Republic that has failed to bring its country into the 21st century (and often not even the 20th), as well as a way to feign solidarity with Arab Sunnis who have traditionally abused the region’s Shiites and Persians. My instinct that Iran’s hostility to Israel was a political tool for the Iranian state was confirmed by many of my Iranian friends, both those extremely hostile to the current regime and those with a more neutral position. These friends insisted that the Iranian people are characteristically open and liberal, and that crowds chanting “death to America” or “death to Israel” are often small shows, orchestrated by the regime and mocked within Iran.
Despite this incomplete and naïve education, I also believe very deeply in a maxim provided by Kurt Vonnegut in the book Mother Knight, ironically a novel about another totalitarian and murderous regime. The quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
Iran may have been pretending or inflating its own distaste for the Jewish state, but a generation of Iranian clerics and Revolutionary Guard personnel have now matured in this state of affairs — and they have actually become what they sought to imitate.
The most disturbing dynamic of this deepening, anti-Israel hatred is Iran’s direct presence in Syria.
In the past, it was common to hear both Arabs and Iranians quip that “Iran is willing to fight Israel down to the last Arab.” In Syria, this has changed — as both Arabs and Persians are dying side by side. The Quds Force, Hezbollah and Shiite militias from around the globe are no longer independent forces, financed by Iran to fight far-flung conflicts that insulate Iran itself. In Syria, these groups are integrated under Iranian command, with battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters fighting and dying with Iranian officers who may never have seen action before being sent to Syria.
This integration, wherein the supposed puppet masters of an Arab-Israeli conflict are now dying alongside their Arab proxies, will inevitably bring the perspective of the two groups closer together. Added to this worrying situation is the fact that Iranian personnel in Syria, along with Hezbollah and other Shiite militiamen, have been targeted and killed by Israeli and American planes — and also proxies of the international anti-ISIS coalition.
The war in Syria has no doubt made the stakes of the Iranian-Israeli conflict real to those Iranians who, for so long, kept their heads above the fray. Iran’s proxies are no longer proxies. The units fighting ISIS and Syrian rebels across both Syria and Iraq contain Iranian officers, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Syrian and Iraqi Shiite volunteers, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite conscripts, and large components of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which are now somewhat integrated with formal Iraqi military forces.
This has the makings of a multinational Shiite force, now with experience serving under Iranian command — and they will be responsible for protecting the land bridge between Beirut and Tehran.
It’s easy to think of hating Israel as a public relations tool from a café in Tehran, but much harder at a checkpoint along a road south of Damascus where you can see Israeli jets flying over the Golan. For thousands of members of the Iranian military, the conflicts and projects they sewed now require their blood to succeed. And where one hateful abstraction forces its way into reality, others will follow.