The Lesser of Syria’s Evils
Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war
The civil war in Syria has led to a keen debate among the professional echelon tasked with advising policymakers in Israel. This debate has been reflected in a more subdued public conversation and occasionally in spectacular events—like the bombing of Syrian military sites around Damascus. So, what are the dividing lines in this Israeli debate? Does Israel back any side in the war in Syria? And what would be an optimal outcome from the Israeli point of view?
The history of the Israeli-Syrian diplomatic process is long and winding, and it is defined by failure. Direct talks in the 1990s failed to produce an agreement. Subsequent attempts to revive direct negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem proved elusive. Turkey-sponsored indirect talks broke down after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead action in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. Yet discreet channels of communication were nevertheless maintained between Israel and the Syrian regime, often through private individuals close to the Israeli government.
Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, an influential group of Israelis in the policymaking establishment favored a revival of efforts to make peace with Syria. These included former head of Military Intelligence Uri Saguy, and former Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Liel. Advocates of this position considered that the Assad regime represented the most brittle and reluctant element in the Iran-led “resistance bloc.” They also thought that because Assad himself was not an Islamist—nor even a Muslim in the generally accepted sense of that term—his commitment to the “resistance bloc” was purely pragmatic in nature. If he could be tempted by territorial inducements to change sides and align with the West, this would represent a major blow to Iran and an achievement for Israel—one that would justify far-reaching territorial concessions on the Golan Heights.
But Assad has refused to comply with this scenario. Instead, he chose to double down on his support for the “resistance bloc” after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Now, should he be so inclined, Assad can congratulate himself on his foresight. Since the outset of the rebellion, Iran has offered vital aid to the Syrian dictator. Direct Iranian aid for the Assad regime has come in the form of financial assistance, provision of vital equipment and arms, and also the presence on the ground of Revolutionary Guard advisers who are expert in guerrilla warfare and have helped to organize, train, and direct the militias that provide an essential prop for the beleaguered Syrian dictator and his regime.
Iran has also mobilized its regional clients and proxies, like the pro-Iranian Maliki government in Iraq, and the Hezbollah organization, which dominates Lebanon, to provide further assistance, including boots on the ground. Maliki has permitted his territory to be used to transport Iranian weapons into Syria, despite American pressure for him to stop. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has been engaged in the border area between Syria and Lebanon since the early days of the civil war. Today, the organization has committed around 5,000 fighters on Syrian soil. Hezbollah men are also present in Damascus, where their task officially is to defend the Sayida Zeinab shrine, a place of veneration for Shia Muslims, from the Sunni rebels. In short, Assad’s preference for sticking with his Iranian allies appears to have saved his rule.
It has also clarified the Israeli attitude toward him. The Israeli raids on Syrian targets in May cast light on the extent to which the Assad regime today is seen by Israel as a component part of Iran’s projection of power into the Levant area. While Israeli spokesmen have been keen to stress that Israel has no desire to intervene in the Syrian civil war and wants only to stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah, it is quite likely that the beleaguered position of the Assad regime was also factored into the consideration of Israeli planners in devising the air action over Damascus.
The statements by Syrian and Hezbollah officials following the latest strikes appear to justify the Israeli calculation. These statements combined bellicose rhetoric with concrete threats of a far more modest nature. Yet the Israeli professional echelon remains divided in its overall assessment of the war in Syria. In the public debate, both former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin and former Mossad head Meir Dagan have suggested that the preferred outcome of the war for Israel would be the defeat of Assad and the resultant heavy blow to the Iranians that it would deal.
Dagan said recently that Israel should “do whatever it can to make sure that Syrian President Bashar Assad is removed from power” and expressed skepticism regarding concerns of a powerful and hostile new Sunni Islamist regime emerging from the ashes of Assad’s Syria. He suggested that Western-aligned Gulf countries would ensure that a Sunni-dominated Syria did not veer toward radicalism. Yadlin fell short of advocating Israeli action to help Assad’s fall but also said that the prospect of Sunni radicalism in Syria would not represent a major challenge for Israel and that Assad’s departure would be a major blow to Iran and its allies.
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