Israel’s strategic approach to Syria can be described as wary, pragmatic and broken down into specific micro areas of threats and interests rather than comprising a comprehensive picture of what kind of Syria it would like to see, and what it could do to facilitate this outcome.
This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report - The regional struggle of Syria.
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When coming to analyse Israel’s approach to the Syrian civil war, one is likely to encounter one of two narratives. In one, Israel clings to the devil it knows, preferring the Assad family, having for decades proven able to maintain stability and quiet on Israel’s northeast border, to the uncertainty likely to be brought by a change of rule, especially considering the jihadist elements in the opposition. In the other, Syria is seen primarily through the prism of Iran, in which the potential weakening of the Islamic Republic (and Hezbollah) via the loss of its Syrian ally is made possible. On closer inspection, however, it appears that Israel, rather than concerning itself with the outcome or trying to push for any kind of a speedy resolution, accepts the inevitable continuation of the conflict but maintains a willingness to intervene tactically where and when it sees fit.
As several observers have noted over the past two years, there is much in the status quo to concern Israel. The risk of overspill, particularly into Jordan and, in different ways, into Lebanon, is a worrying prospect. Additionally, with a progressively thinned out Syrian army that is increasingly focused on the civil war, jihadist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad might well feel bold enough to open a new frontier, albeit sporadic, against Israel, across the armistice line and into the Golan plateau (the rebels briefly took control of a border crossing in June). Currently, the fighting to the east of the plateau already incurs a heavy Syrian military presence that is closer to Israeli lines than it has been in decades.
But there are many benefits to the status quo as well. Israel’s most potent neighbouring militant threat, Hezbollah, is bleeding heavily on the ground and facing greater challenges to its support and legitimacy at home as a consequence (albeit not with its core Shia constituency, many of whom will cling closer to their protector if faced with an increased threat). Iran, too, is paying a price for its role in Syria, experiencing further regional isolation, a loss of the soft power credibility it had accumulated, the challenges of pumped-up sectarianism, and the direct expenditures it has already incurred. Moreover, with the world's attention increasingly focused on Syria rather than on Gaza and the West Bank, Israel’s foot dragging on negotiations and steady demolition of any chances for a two-states solution continue unabated, and under less international scrutiny.
Israel itself, in the meantime, has focused on the hardware component of the new threats emerging from the Syria crisis – namely weaponry. It is concerned not so much about unconventional weapons as it is about weapons that might change, however slightly, the balance of power in the region – the balance that is heavily skewed in Israel’s favour. Presently, Israel enjoys hegemony over all militarily relevant airspace around its borders. Syrian air defences are effective, but Israel has overcome them in the past even for less urgent missions like buzzing the presidential palace in Damascus as it did in 2006. Lebanon’s air space, from which Israel reportedly launched its most recent strikes on Syria, is practically Israel's own to roam. It is in these two airspaces that Israel, which often conflates hegemony with survival, is deeply reluctant to see any significant changes taking place, and is ready and willing to take action to prevent them. The threat of a proliferation of anti-aircraft missiles to rebel fighters, or even Assad acquiring more sophisticated anti-aircraft equipment, poses a challenge to this hegemony.
However, even from this point of view, dramatic escalation is unlikely. Israel has demonstrated that it will act if necessary, but there are indications that it is keen not to spark a broader conflict, nor to test Assad’s newfound commitment to direct involvement in the old resistance cause and its expansion to the Golan Heights. While Israel has threatened to attack Syria’s S-300 missile systems if delivered by Russia, there appears to be elements of bluff here, possibly on both sides. Russia has promised Assad the weapons but it is unclear what exactly has been delivered; Israel, meanwhile, is playing down the possibility of full delivery, hence blunting expectations of an attack.
Two additional Israeli concerns and potential targets for military strikes remain: weapons that Syria already has but might give to Hezbollah; and weapons obtained by the opposition, whether from overrun military dumps or from foreign benefactors. The fear is that someday, some of these newly armed groups might turn these weapons against Israel – although so far, no such group appears to have made it a priority. Israel is lobbying its allies to withhold from the opposition any high-grade weapons such as Man-portable air-defence systems (reportedly this explained the Czech delegation opposing arming the rebels at the European Foreign Affairs Council in May).
In historical terms, Israel and Syria have been in a state of war since 1948, with much of the following 24 years punctuated by border skirmishes, reciprocal bombardments, and several instances of full blown military conflict; the main and overlapping areas of contention being control of the Golan Heights – and critically, its water resources-, and Syrian support for Palestinian paramilitary and terrorist factions engaging in asymmetric conflict with Israel, on the local level, and the two countries’ clashing alliances in the Cold War. While the "water wars" ground to a halt with Israel’s occupation (1967), retention (1973), and the internationally unrecognised annexation (1980) of the Golan plateau, the last direct confrontation between the armies of Israel and Syria took place in 1982. This was part of Israel’s decisive intervention into the Lebanese conflict; from this year onwards, the parties contented themselves with operating through allies and proxies. Popularly known as Israel’s “quietest border”, the Syrian-Israeli armistice line along the Golan plateau lacked even the black market economy characterising the Israeli-Egyptian one and boasted a buffer zone sustained by a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
As the Cold War thawed and old alliances melted, several attempts were made to establish a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria under the successive governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, on the Israeli side, and Hafez al-Assad on the Syrian one. But all failed, largely thanks to disagreements on the delineation of the new border and an Israeli reluctance to confirm its willingness to withdraw to the pre-1967 boundary. Under Bashar al-Assad, when Israel had a faint hope that Syria might be next in line for US-led regime change after Iraq, the negotiation channel was largely neglected until 2008. In this year, indirect talks were considered to have made real progress under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Israel and the Turkish mediation led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his then adviser, who is now the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008 derailed these talks, leading to a rift between Israel and Turkey; Netanyahu’s government showed no interest in renewing the talks with Syria. At the same time, Israel’s perspective on the entire region began to shift: it elevated one nemesis – Iran – above all others, and saw the long-standing Syrian-Iranian relationship in an ever-more sinister light.
The Iranian prism here joins Israel's overall approach to the uprisings that rocked the Middle East from 2011 onwards. Although ostensibly committed to democratic universalism – taking pride in its own democratic institutions – Israel reacted to popular challenges to authoritarian regimes with increasing trepidation as the uprisings rolled closer to home. And despite Assad’s support for Hezbollah and close relationship with Iran, a stable, largely self-contained Syria seemed preferable to either anarchy – especially on Syria’s southern borders, affecting both Israel and Jordan – or a populist Islamist government that could take up the anti-Israel banner with greater vigour than the second Assad regime.
As the uprising spread and gained momentum, the more enticing prospect of a weakened post-Assad, pro-Western (or at least anti-Iranian) Syria briefly came into view. This hope was bolstered by the rebels’ apparent lack of interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Syrian National Council’s attention to Western interests. The initially minor role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian uprising made the ascent of a populist Islamist regime appear less likely, while the strong anti-Iranian sentiment – fanned by Iran’s relentless support for Assad and Hezbollah’s reported engagement in the regime’s crackdown on its opposition – has encouraged Israel to believe that Syria could be the place where the Hezbollah-Iran axis might be severed.
Indeed, in December 2011, then-Defence Minister Ehud Barak told the World Policy Conference in Vienna that Assad would fall “within weeks”. The surprising resilience of the regime and changing nature of those gaining prominence in the opposition blighted Israeli optimism. By January 2013, the mood among decision-makers seemed warily pragmatic: probed for Israel’s views on the developments in Syria, Israeli officials and analysts would reluctantly outline overall scenarios, but stress repeatedly that they thought the conversations were almost a futile exercise since Israel could do very little to influence the situation and that this was increasingly about damage limitation.
Nevertheless, even this wary pragmatism and focus on more immediate threats, like the strategic weapons issue, were also put to use in pursuit of larger Israeli goals. Israel’s all but overt nudges for the US to intervene (for example, by widely publicising reports on chemical weapons use, confronting the US publicly with alleged violations of US President Barack Obama’s own red lines) can be seen as helping to erode the US administration’s general reluctance to do so, which could push the envelope on Iran. At the same time, Israel’s strikes within Syrian territory – three since the beginning of the year – convey to observers that while strongly preferring US leadership, Israel is still capable and willing to act alone when it claims strategic interests are at stake. Again there is a message here for the Iranian file.
Israel is also watching tensely for signs of overspill into Lebanon and Jordan, albeit for different reasons. While a warring, destabilised Lebanon does not necessarily align with Israeli interests (if only for the prospect of creating yet another ungoverned and unpredictable space on yet another Israeli frontier), it also clearly does not bode well for Hezbollah, with its nearer patron preoccupied with its own survival and its further patron now separated from it by increasingly uncontrolled terrain. In Jordan, by contrast, Israel is highly interested in the preservation of the pro-Western monarchy of King Abdullah who has guarded the country’s peace treaty with Israel, and who Israel relies on to keep discontent among Jordanians – a majority of whom are descendants of Palestinian refugees – under a tight lid. In a worst case scenario, even before the fate of the Hashemite monarchy is determined, Israel could face the emergence of a highly volatile region stretched along almost the entire length of Israel’s borders, torn apart by civil unrest and, as likely as not, substantial armed non-state actors (Jordan has its own Salafi militants, less easy to keep in check given the political impact of events in Syria and a region awash with arms). To make matters worse, Jordan’s strongest opposition is still the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front. It should not come as a surprise then that Netanyahu has been conferring with Abdullah frequently over the past two years, including flying to Amman in person (secretly, and then leaking it) and encouraging further Western backing for the regime in Amman. Abdullah, in turn, has mollified his criticism of Netanyahu’s engagement with the Palestinian issue, going as far as to praise their “conversations” ahead of Obama’s visit to Israel in mid-March.
On the Palestinian front, the most scrutinised development is the Hamas leadership’s abandonment of Syrian patronage and shift towards Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. This shift pushes Hamas into the orbit of influence of America’s allies. Theoretically this could create a more amenable climate for engagement, but that is not something the United States and Israel show signs of pursuing for now, despite the limited negotiations on prisoner exchange and the ceasefire in November 2012 conducted under Egyptian patronage. These green-shoots have not thus far translated into something more. The Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, while the scene of considerable violence that affects support for Assad across the Palestinian diaspora, do not appear to be an area of particular Israeli concern at this point in time.
From the perspective of the Netanyahu-led government, however, the sheer complexity and bloodiness of the Syria debacle pushes the Palestinian issue and the occupation, with its daily violence, further and further down the agenda both at home and abroad – not a development that the increasingly hard-line Israeli cabinet would complain about. Domestically, Netanyahu has been able to relegate Palestinians and the occupation to third place in the national security agenda, after Iran and Syria. And the international community’s reaction to Syria, alternating between indecision and unseemly squabbling, makes the very idea of international involvement in the Middle East increasingly distasteful. The Syrian conflict is making Obama look weak and the UN irrelevant – all welcome news to Israel, which would prefer the above to keep quiet about the way it manages the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The disintegration of UNDOF is a case in point: in the Israeli cabinet meeting on 9 June, Netanyahu used the woes of the Golan peacekeeping force to reiterate his position against the presence of international peacekeeping forces in the West Bank and notably on the Jordan valley, saying that UNDOF's disintegration has proved that Israel can rely only on the Israeli Defence Forces for its security. There is a counter-point to all this – Israel is not seen to benefit from the effectively unchallenged deployment of hard power by Hezbollah, Iran, and to a lesser degree, Russia, their demonstrated willingness to stand foursquare behind an ally, and so far to achieve quite impressive results on the ground.
And while in many cases sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, Israeli public opinion seems largely distant from the events to the north except when something occurs on the actual border with Syria. That distance is helped by the fact that Israel is the only Syrian neighbour not confronted with a massive refugee problem brought on by the conflict, and, despite offering medical treatment to the very occasional wounded combatant, is wont to keep it that way. The absence of such refugees adds to a situation in which there is very little domestic pressure to do anything; at most, there is the occasional gloating from the right over the wisdom of Israel remaining on the Golan, eschewing peace with Assad and generally feeding the narrative of suspicious isolation. As far as the tactical strikes are concerned, the Israeli public, from right to left, is broadly supportive of whatever the government might think is necessary to stop “balance-breaking” weapons from reaching Hezbollah.
At the time of writing, Israel’s strategic approach to Syria can be described as wary, pragmatic, and broken down into to specific micro areas of threats and interests rather than comprising a comprehensive picture of what kind of Syria Israel would like to see, and what it would – or could – do to facilitate this outcome. But tactical strikes, propelled by a tendency to equate hegemony with survival, could well result in far reaching strategic implications – way beyond what Israel may have planned by increasingly drawing it into the conflict. But, so far, Israel appears confident that it can select the very specific points at which it wants to intervene, allow the two sides of the Syrian conflict to bleed each other out, and make the most of it.
Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist and an Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Follow him on Twitter @dimireider