Israeli Strategy towards the Syrian Crisis
The current situation in Syria only confirms Israel’s belief that the Middle East is inherently unstable. Many Israeli settlers on the Golan Heights hope that eventually a new regime will come to Syria which will be ready to cede the Golan Heights to Israel. Perhaps this will also be an opportunity to make peace with Syria. For this reason, it is important to get the most accurate picture we can about Israel’s current actions towards Syria. At a first glance, they seem to be very confusing and mixed. As the Financial Times reported “Israeli leaders are watching events across the border with a blend of worry, hope and frustration”. This is because they are worried that Assad might make irrational moves or that the weapons might fall into terrorists' hands. In regards to its long-term strategy, Israel seems to be evaluating the following elements.
Given that Israel depends on American financial support to uphold its security, it is crucial for Israel to know the American position towards Syria. CBS reported that Wikileaks released cables illustrating US authorities prediction against Assad’s survival by financing anti-government factions, a practice which has been in operation since at least September 2010. US State department has donated between $6 and $12 million, mostly to broadcasting initiatives, such as Barada TV, an anti-regime asset. This is not surprising given that US President Barack Obama and Turkey have agreed on supplying non-lethal aid to rebels, including telecommunications. However, covert operations seem to be playing a much bigger role, such as providing surveillance to the rebels via drones, and arming the rebels via proxies. Seeing this, Israeli can be reassured that Assad will fall; after all, this is Israel’s long-term prediction, no matter how long it takes.
But why is Israel, and even the US, reluctant to offer direct support to the opposition in Syria? The answer lies in the fact that Syrian opposition groups remain fractured among 14 or so groups. Two groups that the West could work with, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee have incompatible views and neither has the major support of Syrian opposition. Two groups, for example, disagree whether violence should be used to oust Assad. Even the Free Syrian Army, the symbol of resistance, has neither organization nor top-down communication. Thus, it operates via small, unconnected groups. However, among all these groups, the EU has recognized the Syrian National Council, which, unfortunately for Israel, contains mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, despite EU recognition, even the Syrian National Council has split into more factions. An even bigger danger is that many of the opposition members are supporters of radical Islam, Jihad and proponents of terrorism, as has been demonstrated with terrorist attacks that claim the lives of many innocent bystanders. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has stated that the Syrian regime is confronting armed gangs and al-Qaida members. Although the Financial Times reports that Israel is confident that any alternative to Assad would be good to Israel, Israel has a good reason to be worried about opposition as much as about Assad.
As a matter of fact, there are signals that Israel was supporting Assad indirectly. For example, reports surfaced that Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles were flying over Syria to monitor and attack Syrian opposition. Publicly at least, Israel has claimed that it does not want to get involved in Syrian affairs, and that it is only ready to send purely humanitarian aid. Although one could claim that intelligence behind these reports is fabricated, Israel’s initial support of Assad makes sense if we consider the following. First, the Free Syrian Army is supplied mostly through Lebanon because the border is porous. This means that many supplies can be sent through the Mediterranean. Libya has admitted sending the financial aid, while the Qatari Prime Minister said that Qatar should send weapons to the opposition. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival for regional dominance, has shown support for the opposition with its foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, stating that arming Syrian opposition is an excellent idea. Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has implemented this policy. Other Gulf States are also implicated in arming the opposition. It is only natural for Israel to provide counterbalance. This is especially true since Israel can only benefit from a weak Syria, or as some analysts describe, that Israel would like to see a divided Syria. It also makes sense from a strategic element as analyzed above; namely that Israel seeks to isolate Syria from other Arab states. Assad may be a devil, but he is a devil “that Israel knows.” Supporting him is not a safe option, but it is an option that will weaken Syria and prolong the crisis, giving more time to Israel to think what to do next.
However, some may point to 1982 to discredit intelligence that Israel would support Assad. In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria led an armed insurgency against the secular Baath socialist regime. Israel in this case funnelled support to the Brotherhood through proxies in Lebanon. This may seem like a contradiction with the current policy. Of course, to understand this event, one has to understand that the secular and nationalist regime of Syria at the time fought a war with Israel in 1967, together with Egypt. Both countries, as biggest threats to Israel, espoused Arab nationalism and secularism (supressing Islamic elements). For Israel, it was only natural to try and cripple the regimes of Egypt and Syria, even if that meant working with Islamists. However, the situation today is different, where the biggest threat for Israel is not Arab nationalism, but rather terrorism and Islamic parties which don’t recognize Israel. Let’s look at Egypt, a vital security element to Israel. First, US-Egyptian relations have deteriorated since Egypt’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces after Islamic parties’ victory in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. This also reflects the danger the current Egyptian regime can pose to Israel, and thus the US has made its financial aid to Egypt conditional on continuity of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. But much remains uncertain about Egypt’s future, which worries the US. Presidential elections have been a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is uncertain whether the new presidency will be able to hold, given the opposition against the temporary constitution. At the moment, the two biggest parties in Egypt’s parliament are Islamic parties, which have already moved to cut ties with Israel, even refusing to recognize Israel. The new parliament, for example, voted to expel the Israeli Ambassador. Israel has a right to be worried that its peace treaty with Egypt will come under threat. Given this, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria may not be much different, and for this reason it is worth reiterating that a weak and divided Syria is currently the safest policy that can only benefit Israel. As Elias Sakr reported for The Daily Star, “Yet with both sides of the conflict struggling to take ground but failing to break the standoff, Israel is set to benefit from a long confrontation between Assad’s forces and opposition groups.”
Finally, as already hinted at, Iran is also intertwined in this game as a regime which supports terrorist efforts against Israel. Officially, the Iranian regime claims to not be supporting anyone in this conflict; however, there are reports that Iranian armored brigades are fighting alongside the Syrian regime. This would not be a surprise given the historical elements of Israeli security whereby Syria has proven to be the main thorn in the eye for Israel, and the only state which still fights Israel through proxy wars. The current situation between Israel and Iran also does not help.
Israel’s current policy, as it has been complied with the best knowledge to date, seems prudent. Namely, Israel has chosen to wait it out. This is smart because any Israeli interference in Arab affairs would only bring more hatred toward Israel. Thus, this policy of non-interference seems to be the safest option. However, it is only the best policy at the moment, and to preserve this moment, Israel needs to do whatever it takes, via United States or otherwise, to prolong the crisis in Syria and support division. With an uncertain future between Egypt and Israel, Israel must neutralize its northern frontier as much as possible. This is because chaos and division will make Syria too weak to face Israel directly or indirectly support Hezbollah against Israel. Supporting ‘democracy’ in this case is a more risky call, since it can fuel radical Islam. Israel should be wary of Arab states who are calling themselves champions of democracy in Syria. Not only is this hypocritical, it shows the geopolitical manoeuvring of Arab states, an attempt to gain control over Syria without further fuelling radical Islam. For Israel, this means playing with fire, as the outcome in Egypt has demonstrated the opposite effect. But there is always hope that an Arab intervention will create an outcome that will satisfy the US, Israel and the Arab kingdoms, as was the case in Bahrain. Either way, chaos can give Israel time and security (see concept of ‘regime targeting’ which seeks to cripple an opponent by instilling internal chaos), while letting the Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia (a friend of US) guide the Syrian opposition is a more risky bet.
However, a time will come when a certain outcome in Syria becomes inevitable, whether this will mean that Assad stays in power, or that the opposition takes control. This is when Israel should act more decisively. Both outcomes are not desirable for Israel, but Israel must be prepared to offer support to the faction whose victory seems imminent. Supporting opposition against the imminent victor may only create a greater hostility towards Israel, and thus it is important to shape the victor’s policies as soon as it becomes certain that a victor will emerge. Given division among the Syrian opposition, it may as well be Assad, and even though Iran also supports Assad, it would be important for Israel to maintain the ‘predictable’ relationship it had over the years with Assad. Actually, indirectly supporting Assad may be the only option for Israel if the opposition insists on having the Islamic character. After all, in 1991 in Algeria, democratic elections brought to power Islamic fundamentalists, a threat to Israel. To refrain from supporting opposition whose intention is destruction of Israel only makes rational sense. However, again, Arab regimes may be able to form an anti-Assad coalition which would seek peace with Israel and prevent the spread of radical Islam. This would be an acceptable outcome for Israel given strong common interests between the US and Israel.
There are two factors, however, which could threaten Israeli security, and thus, they are worth reconsidering. The first is the growing rift between US and Israel, for example, in terms of how to deal with Iran. This growing rift with the US means that Israel must prepare to make space for new global players, such as China and Russia. Yet, Israeli ties with other countries, such as China, risk undermining America’s global aims. This could result in American rejection of aiding Israel. This would be detrimental to Israel’s security. Yet, keeping good relations with future global powers is also crucial as Russia and China will have an impact on the Middle East. Can Israel manage to do both, to please the US and also open up to China and Russia? It is definitely going to be difficult and priority should always be given to the US, but this strategy must entail keeping out of US-Russia-China conflicts whenever possible, such as was done during the war in Georgia, and now as it should be done in Syria.
The second factor worth mentioning is the apparent overlap of interests between Israel and Iran to keep the current regime in place, however unlikely of an outcome. This is the inevitable contradiction that Israel faces among many of its policy choices. On one hand Israel faces Arab countries’ support of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and on the other hand Iran’s support of Assad. Assad is the more predictable player in this game, which is a reason why Israel should slightly favour his victory (only at the moment, unless Arab states manage to form a non-Islamic coalition in the Syrian opposition), though this doesn’t mean that there is no threat from Iran. As a matter of fact, as mentioned above, Iran is currently the biggest threat for Israel. The fact that both Israel and Iran might favour Assad only means that both sides see Assad as a vital player to their geopolitical goals. For Israel, support of Assad means that Assad ought to continue his policy of continued peace talks with Israel, no matter how difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, Assad is unlikely to remain in power and for this reason Israel should not rely on the option of his victory, even though supporting him indirectly will give Israel time and necessary chaos in Syria.
Marinko Bobić is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com