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The Lesser of Syria’s Evils

Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war

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A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 11, 2013. (JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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I think this is more the evil of two lessers

Beatrix17 says:

Since Obama reached out to the Mideast with offers of peace and friendship, there seems to be non-stop attempts by our allies to overthrow their leaders while America sits back and watches, usually with silent approval. Assad had to notice the way we turned our back on Mubarak and led from behind in order to overthrow Gaddafi before he decided to throw his lot in with Iran. Of course, Assad still isn’t doing too well, which should give Israelis some hope in their dealings with Iran.

Israel needs to come up with a low cost substitute for oil, a potion that stops old age, or some such Chimera, the secret of which she’ll only entrust to allies. Then she doesn’t have to negotiate—the world will come knocking at her gate.

Papa493 says:

Well, if even the Israelis can’t decide whom to back, why on earth should we get involved?

jacknyc says:

we should arm both sides and build a high fence around the country

since this is how muslims treat muslims, peace between muslims and infidels, as proposed for the Israels and the Pals, is nonsense

the safest place between tunisia and Indonesia from mali to bosnia the entire arc and quadrant of the earth occupied by islam, is inside israel, where shia and sunni and christian and jew do not kill each other

even in gaza and west bank muslims kill muslims

no wonder they hate us

peace is the absence of war and the absence of shooting pax judaica, the peace of conquest, is peace, and most Pals know this, by common sense, the rest the chattering classes are hustlers for other people’s money

herbcaen says:

How about complete victory for both sides in the Syrian conflict

Ishay says:

It’s not a brainer that Israel
should support the rebels. The support should be assertive and pragmatic to be
effective in the long term, the cooperation between Israel and the rebel a
mutual win-win situation for years to come. Israel and the rebels should think
in terms of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In this case supporting the
rebels to topple Asad’s regime will weaken Iran and the Hezbollah. The rebels
will remember for years to come the atrocities of Asad supported by Hezbollah
and Iran and will be busy getting even. Although Al-Qaeda is supporting the
rebels, they pose far less danger to Israel than Iran and Hezbollah. Israel
should take this opportunity to work with the Hamas and the Palestinians towards
a two state solution. This is a great opening to release the high tensions in
the region and Israel should act wisely with a long term strategic thinking (overcoming
short term political gains) and make the most of this golden opportunity.

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The Lesser of Syria’s Evils

Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war

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