Israel’s self-serving view of the Syrian war
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.