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Idlib, Israel, and the Syrian Endgame

Israel tries not to get mired in Syria as it plans for the Middle East’s next war

Armin Rosen
September 05, 2018
Zein Al Rifa/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian man rides a motorcycle past a destroyed building in an area that reportedly was hit by an air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib province, on Sept. 4, 2018.Zein Al Rifa/AFP/Getty Images
Zein Al Rifa/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian man rides a motorcycle past a destroyed building in an area that reportedly was hit by an air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib province, on Sept. 4, 2018.Zein Al Rifa/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian civil war has reached what’s widely being mistaken for its endgame as shelling and airstrikes began in the last major rebel-held enclave this week. The Russian-assisted regime assault on Idlib means the conflict “could be about enter its final stage” according to the BBC. Over the past week, The Washington Post has twice referred to a coming “final showdown” in the war-torn country. The campaign could bring the conflict into a new phase without ending it in any meaningful sense. If Assad does eventually retake Idlib, the regime’s reconquest of all significant rebel-controlled territory will raise a string of new dilemmas for Israel.

Over the seven years of the Syrian conflict, Jerusalem’s main objective has been to maintain its ability to strike at Iranian or Hezbollah-linked targets inside Syria, while keeping the chaos of the civil war and Israel’s numerous enemies as far away from its borders as possible. This approach has basically worked so far: This week, the IDF acknowledged that it has struck at Iran-linked targets in Syria some 202 times over the past year-and-a-half. Spillover violence inside Israeli-held territory has been minimal.

At no point has Israel even toyed with regime change in Syria, and the country’s security planners and diplomats insist that Jerusalem isn’t backing a side in the conflict. As Israeli United Nations Ambassador Danny Danon told Tablet in a late August interview, “Prime Minister Netanyahu made the very smart decision that we are not interfering in the civil war in Syria. And it wasn’t easy for us, being a Jewish nation and seeing the atrocities in Syria.” Instead, “our goal is to move the Iranians far away from our border and outside of Syria,” Danon explained.

The Idlib campaign is likely to complicate Israel’s attempted neutrality on the war’s outcome. As Assad consolidates his control of Syria, Iran and Russia have become even more entrenched in the country, with outside powers accepting their long-term presence as one of the conflict’s realities. For instance, in early August Russian military police began patrolling the Syrian-Israeli disengagement zone in the Golan Heights alongside U.N. peacekeepers. That move put ground forces allied with the Assad regime, and fighting on the same side of the conflict as Iran, along Israel’s frontier with the tacit blessing of the U.N. itself. Israeli Ambassador Danon doesn’t see this as a threat to Israel: “Those are technical things for us,” he said of the Russian deployment. Still, Moscow is likely to enjoy an even greater degree of operational freedom during the coming phase of the conflict, with the tolerance and even the complicity of leading international institutions—which raises the possibility that the international community will eventually accept a permanent Iranian presence in Syria as a fact of life in the Middle East, too.

Apart from the Iranian proxies active in Syria, the country’s constellation of jihadist groups will probably survive whatever the regime does in Idlib. But even if Assad succeeds in conquering the country’s last major contiguous pocket of opposition-controlled territory, precedent suggests that the campaign will come at an appalling human cost, with thousands or tens of thousands dead, substantial refugee outflows, and a permanent-looking Iranian and Russian military presence within the newly “liberated” areas. Syrian refugees are not returning to the places Assad has retaken—not surprising given most of them were fleeing his government in the first place—and civilian deaths spiked this past August after an uptick in Russian airstrikes.

Idlib presents one of the steepest military challenges Assad has faced over seven years of war. An estimated 3 million people live within opposition-held parts of the province, which borders Turkey and is close to Syria’s regime-controlled coastline and major cities. According to the BBC, around half of the area’s current civilian population fled into Idlib from other rebel-held territories that fell to Assad, an indication of how desperate and unsparing the coming battle is likely to be. There’s a reason Assad has decided to go after Idlib last: The enclave’s size and strategic importance make it, arguably, an even more fraught battleground than Aleppo had been.

The Assad regime and its allies are also prematurely looking to a post-conflict Syria, in the hopes that foreign donors will begin to finance the country’s reconstruction. In practice, Syria’s “rebuilding” means distributing the costs of Assad’s brutal campaign to various multilateral donors like the U.N. and the E.U., who would end up underwriting an Iranian-allied human rights abuser to the tune of some $250 billion. Again, Danon seemed unconcerned. “We will not get involved about who will do what, who will control what in Syria,” he said when asked about how the politics of the country’s reconstruction could impact Israel. Still, an international community exhausted with the Syrian quagmire—and eager for any reason to send millions of refugees back home—might be tempted to hand the Assad regime whatever it asks for, enriching and emboldening one of Israel’s adversaries.

Israel’s national security chiefs have always believed the country was better off reacting to events in Syria than shaping them. Jerusalem’s patience through a critical stretch of the war, if it holds, will owe to Israeli planners’ skepticism that even the most dramatic developments in the Middle East can be decisive or even all that clarifying. When asked about the possibilities of a long-term truce with Hamas, Danon hinted that his country can never expect its strategic challenges to be solved with any real finality. “It says in the Bible that after each war, varetz tiskhot arbayim shana—basically after a war, no matter against who, there was quiet for 40 years. You can call it a truce, a ceasefire, but basically there was a war, we won, and the other side respected or learned the lesson for 40 years. Nowadays it’s much shorter than 40 years.” For better or worse, Israel believes it’s locked in an indefinite state of wait and see nearly everywhere it looks.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.