Israel’s self-serving view of the Syrian war

Friday 08/04/2016
Israeli soldiers patrol near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, last February.

Dubai - Israel has technically been at war with Syria ever since its formation in 1948. Until the Syrian war broke out, despite a balance of power that favoured Israel heavily, Syria represented one of Israel’s principal military threats.
Israel has defeated the Syrian Army in all three wars they have fought and occupies the Golan Heights, seized in 1967 during the six-day war. However, Syria re­cently began to evolve its strategy against Israel by developing ties with armed non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
In April 2010, US and Israeli of­ficials, for example, charged Syria with transferring Scud missiles with 700km-plus ranges to Hezbol­lah. Tel Aviv would be within reach of such weapons fired from south­ern Lebanon.
Syria had become integral to the Iranian regional alliance, Israel’s pre-eminent security threat. Em­bracing a similar approach to Iran that prioritised the development of ballistic missile capabilities, Syria had also possessed chemical weap­ons.
By January 31st, 2015, however, the Organisation for the Prohibi­tion of Chemical Weapons reported that approximately 98% of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles had been destroyed after the Assad re­gime struck a deal with the Ameri­cans to give them up. In September 2007, Israel had destroyed a covert nuclear facility in northern Syria, an incident that followed a $1 bil­lion grant from Iran to Syria to up­grades its defences.
The Syrian war, which ties Iran and Hezbollah into the conflict, is the single most important strate­gic development taking place for Israel. Israeli involvement in Syria may appear more limited than Ira­nian, Russian, Lebanese, Turkish, or American, for example, but it has been highly calculated and ar­guably less hesitant.
The Golan Heights has again come into focus as Hezbollah and Iran explore how to develop a stra­tegic presence in the region. Israeli forces and intelligence have been busy with border protection, covert raids inside Syria and provisioning medical treatment to rebels on the front line.
Thousands of Syrians, including operatives of al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, have been treated at hospitals in northern Israel and by Israeli medical teams inside Syria. Israel has perceptibly been willing to facilitate as much fight­ing between the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iranian forces with moderate rebels, the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda or any combination of stakeholders.
The Syrian civil war has yielded largely positive developments for Israel. Its Syrian enemy has implod­ed and chemical weapons neutral­ised. If there was any possibility of a serious threat re-emerging in the Syrian Army, that has been compre­hensively removed.
Even Russian intervention into Syria proved useful for the Israelis. It prevented a total regime collapse and thereby a situation that would become difficult to control or ma­nipulate; it stopped the growth of ISIS, which is seen as an incubat­ing threat; moderated the role of Hezbollah and Iran, which began a drawdown almost simultaneously; and it has helped create conditions for some manner of dialogue.
With the Syrian state neutralised as a military threat, the concern for Israel is what happens next inside Syria. How de facto power is divided and what level of influence regional stakeholders, especially Iran, Hez­bollah and al-Qaeda have, along­side the United States, Turkey and Russia, for example. A permanent stalemate is what Israel would ide­ally like to see in Syria, with power diluted between many groups.
However, Israel has little confu­sion over which is its most potent enemy. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon publicly suggested about Syria that “if the choice is be­tween Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State”. The logic is that ISIS does not have the capa­bilities to threaten Israel in the way the Iran and its allies can.
For Israeli military chief Lieuten­ant-General Gadi Eizenkot, too, the “number one enemy” remains Hez­bollah, which has grown its inven­tory of rockets and missiles from 10,000 to 100,000. Spread across 240 villages in southern Lebanon, according to Eizenkot, Hezbollah is positioned to launch the most sophisticated inventory of rockets and missiles it has ever had when­ever the order is given.
Israel says Hezbollah and Iran want to develop the similar capa­bility to target Israel from Syria and that scenario could prove disas­trous for the Israelis. As such, Israel worries that a victory for the Assad regime is a victory for Iran and for Hezbollah, which will strengthen and embolden their alliance.
Israel was convinced the West would intervene in Syria in favour of moderate rebels but this seems less and less likely. On the other hand, ISIS has been pushed by the Russian military intervention to­wards the Israeli and Jordanian borders, according to Eizenkot.
While Israel cannot detach itself from the Syrian civil war and its ramifications on national and re­gional security, Tel Aviv has been able to keep a surprisingly safe dis­tance from a conflict fuelled by reli­gious and ethnic identities.
Most predictions for Syria, in­cluding in Israel, envisage multiple “enclaves” emerging for Sunnis, Alawites, Shias, Druzes, Christians and Kurds, with de facto power di­vided among them and instability persisting long into the future.
The road to that endgame is, however, replete with unexpected developments and more than ever before blow back of the Syrian war is picking up strength as it heads to­wards Israel.