The Lesser of Syria’s Evils
Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war
All of this said, however, talks with serving Israeli officials engaged on Syria suggest the existence of a separate school of thought that is deeply concerned at the potential threat of emergent Salafi Islamism in Syria in whatever vacuum is left in the wake of Assad’s downfall. Israel is observing closely the growing strength of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is now thought to have upward of 6,000 fighters under its banner and has made statements suggesting that it plans to attack both Israeli and U.S. targets, once its war with Assad has been concluded.
While rival analyses clearly exist in the Israeli discussion regarding the likely direction of events in Syria, these do not reveal broad differences regarding recommended Israeli actions in the immediate future. In the here and now, Israel is pursuing a policy designed to minimize the threats represented by both sides.
Against the Iran-led bloc, Israel is taking determined action to prevent a Syrian government policy of moving high-grade weapons systems into Lebanon. It is very possible that the May strikes were not the last of their kind. But in any case, these strikes formed only an unusually visible episode in an ongoing, usually clandestine, war being undertaken by Israel to reduce the threat posed by Iran and its various assets in the region.
Jerusalem has also quietly engaged in the significant strengthening of security measures on the northeastern border facing Syria. As the adjacent Dera’a province falls ever deeper into the hands of Islamist rebels, Israel has constructed a new, state of the art border fence and has increased the forces deployed on the Golan Heights.
There are indications of a certain level of cooperation on the ground between Israel and elements among the rebels in the border area separating Syria from Israel. The IDF has established a field hospital in the area of Tel Hazekah, an observation post on the heights. According to media reports, Syrian rebels wounded in the fighting in the south have been brought to the hospital for first aid. A small number of badly wounded fighters have been transferred to Israeli hospitals for further treatment.
The operation of the field hospital, whose existence Israel has not officially confirmed, suggests a level of communication between the IDF and the rebels. The existence of a certain level of liaison between the IDF and these rebels should be seen in the broader context of a semi-clandestine, U.S.-led effort, which has been under way in recent months to train trusted Syrian rebel fighters in northern Jordan and then to introduce these fighters into the combat zones of southern Syria. The intention behind this effort appears to be two-fold: to protect the borders of Jordan from attacks from radical Sunni rebels; and to provide a balance to the Sunni Islamist rebels who dominate northern Syria.
With the civil war showing no signs of ending any time soon, and the country separating into separate and hostile enclaves, it appears that a quiet strategy of ensuring a strong presence of non-Salafi, Western-supported fighters in the area of the Jordanian and Israeli borders is under way. It is likely that the low-level communication and the treatment of wounded Syrian rebels by Israel is part of this. There are currently no signs of Israel being drawn further into a more overt implementation of this strategy, and it is likely that neither Israel nor the rebels in question would want this.
Ultimately, Israeli policy on Syria derives from the familiar combination of limited political/diplomatic possibilities and military superiority. The deep-rooted rejection of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence is common to both sides of the Syrian civil war and is ubiquitous in the Arabic-speaking world and among the Iranian leadership. This rejection shapes and limits Israel’s options as an actor on the regional stage. Even with the leading Sunni states opposed to Iran, interaction and cooperation are necessarily covert and limited—and the growth of Sunni political Islam as a result of the “Arab spring” has only exacerbated this reality.
In such circumstances, Israeli options are reduced to the basic need to ensure the security of its citizens and deter enemies. It appears that Moshe Dayan’s famous dictum that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a defense policy” continues to hold, at least in Israel’s immediate neighborhood.
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