Israel hedges its bets on Syria

Is Israel being deliberately indecisive on whether or not to support the Syrian opposition?

Syria armed opposition
Widespread protests and army defections are attempting to bring down the Assad administration in Syria [Reuters]

Herzliya, Israel – Officials here are waffling over what position to take in response to the Syrian uprising. During the early days of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, officials in Israel kept a low profile in relation to their northern neighbour. In conventional wisdom, they pursued what has been termed as a policy of “better the devil we know” – that supporting the status quo was better than not knowing what came next.  

Although the Israeli government has been no friend of the Assad administration, policymakers in Israel maintained a “strategy of silence” towards the Syrian opposition. Given Syria’s perceived geographic vulnerability, and limited military resources, the chances of Assad leading a successful military campaign against Israel are relatively low. The Israel-Syria border has remained rather quiet since 1973. Even when the Israeli army killed 26 Palestinian protesters in June 2011, as they marched towards the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights, tensions did not escalate towards a potential conflict between the two states.

Given the recent outburst over containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the seeming obsession with a 2012 confrontation, many Israeli officials and analysts have recommended taking a stronger position in support of the Syrian opposition. They view the prospective collapse of the house of Assad through the prism of Israel’s realpolitik, as a way to break the so-called Tehran-Damascus axis and as a means of weakening Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that maintained political offices in Syria’s capital. Government officials in Israel reportedly see the current climate as an opportunity to redraw the map of the region, isolating Iran and bringing Syria into its orbit.  

Iran’s Achilles heel

Some Israeli officials say the plight of the Assad government would not only threaten to break ties between Iran and Syria, which has been a long-term goal of both Israel and the US, but would also cut Iran’s lifeline to the rest of the Middle East (excluding Iraq). Tehran would lose its channel for providing military, financial and logistical aid to Hamas in Gaza and to Hezbollah in Lebanon, they maintain.

“[Israel] should look at Syria and see Syria as the Achilles heel of Iran. It is a great opportunity, an enormous opportunity, and this is where the strategy of the Israeli government should be,” former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy said at the Herzliya conference, the annual confab of Middle East security players and watchers, held in early February.

This year’s security rendezvous – entitled “In the eye of the storm” – concentrated on Israel’s response to the Arab uprisings of the past year.

At the conference, Aviv Kochavi, the military intelligence chief in Israel, said that changes in the region “spell a decrease in the power of the radical axis: Iran-Syria-Lebanon-Hezbollah on the one hand, and Iran-Hamas-Islamic Jihad in Gaza, on the other hand”.

These various axes are by no means set in stone, yet have entered our lexicon in an axis-of-evil fashion.

Danielle Pletka, the Vice President of Foreign and Defence Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, added: “The lowest-hanging fruit is Syria, and one of the things that struck me and my colleagues as we met with people around Israel this last week is the apathy around the question of Syria.”

Some Israeli officials have argued that Assad is busy with internal problems, and is therefore unable to focus his energies against Israel. However, others worry that if Assad perceives that he is going down, he may try to attack Israel as a distraction to rally people around his cause. 

Despite the uncertainty over what Israel’s position to the Syrian uprising should be, Tel Aviv is increasingly confident that the regime is on the verge of collapse. In January, Israel’s military chief, Benny Gantz, addressed a closed parliamentary session and said that, in the event of Assad’s demise, Israel was prepared to absorb refugees in a buffer zone between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights. The plans include humanitarian assistance and defence measures, mainly aimed for the minority ruling Alawite sect. Following years of animosity between Israel and the Alawite community, critics questioned whether Gantz’s statement was just impractical posturing. Why the Alawites would prefer the Golan Heights to South Lebanon also remains unknown.

“The premise of his [Gantz’s] remarks – that Alawites would be forced to flee for their lives after Assad fell – isn’t a statement that Syria’s opposition will welcome. Gantz’s statements may have been anti-Assad, but they weren’t pro-revolution,” David Kenner, the associate editor at Foreign Policy, wrote.

Scramble for Syria

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice prime minister, was asked on Israel Army Radio what contact Israel has had with the Syrian opposition. Ya’alon responded: “Whether there’s contact or not, you don’t expect me to discuss these things in the media.”

Is Israel hesitant to publicly support the opposition because it prefers to do so secretly – or because a weakened and discredited Assad is in Israel’s strategic interest?

The possible fall of Assad would present a panoply of unknowns for Israel. Syria is seen as a key player in the Middle East. Damascus is central to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War.

As the possibility of international intervention strengthens with the fiasco over last week’s UN resolution, the Syrian uprising is transforming itself into a playground for international powers to exert influence, with Israel anxiously watching from the sidelines.

Joshua Landis, the director of the center of Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, said: “If Israel thinks he [Assad] is going down, why take risks by getting involved? … For Israel to get involved, it would be counterproductive.”

Landis, who blogs at Syria Comment, further explained: “You have an extremely weakened Gaza, Syria is still holding together as a country, and there aren’t militia that can run around and make trouble for Israel. They are making trouble for Assad, and that way Assad cannot act as an enabler of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is sitting there very anxious, Iran is anxious, and this is good for Israel.”

Follow Roxanne Horesh on Twitter: @RoxanneHoresh

Source: Al Jazeera