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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

Jonathan Spyer
May 14, 2013
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)
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)

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.

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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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.