Netanyahu and Syria

Iran and its nuclear program will dominate the public agenda when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to town, but the crisis in Syria is also likely to be high on the prime minister’s list in his talks with Obama administration officials. Although Syria has been in crisis almost a year now, the violence there is escalating, and the carnage is forcing U.S. and Israeli officials to focus on that embattled country.

As the crisis unfolded Israelis have confidently predicted that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would fall. Assad has long been an enemy of the Jewish state, backing terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas. Even more important, Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, and this partnership gives Iran a toehold on Israel’s border. So his fall would be welcomed among Israelis. The United States shares these Israeli interests and also bears the scars of Syria’s support for anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.

The unrest may topple Assad, but it seems equally likely that he will survive or that the country will enter a more massive civil war or fall into chaos. Instability in a country on Israel’s border is of tremendous concern to the country’s security establishment. Syria has a massive chemical weapons arsenal and advanced surface-to-air missile systems – items that Israel fears could end up in the hands of terrorist groups like the Lebanese Hizbullah and the United States worries could be passed to al-Qaeda sympathizers should chaos envelope the country. Israel is even preparing for refugees to flow into the country via the Golan Heights.

Israel, however, must rely heavily on the United States to protect its interests in Syria. Should Israel help the Syrian opposition, it would discredit the very forces Jerusalem wants to help. Indeed, such support from Syria’s longstanding enemy might convince regime opponents to support the Assad regime. Israel might provide covert aid, of course, but the scale of such support is likely to be limited to preserve secrecy and thus of only limited impact. To maintain economic pressure, U.S. leadership is vital in keeping the European states on track and convincing China and Russia to change their policies. Israel has little influence with these powers. Preventing Syria’s arsenals from falling into the wrong hands is a tough task for any power given the porous borders Syria has with Lebanon and Iraq – and thus with Hizbullah and al-Qaeda – but even here the United States is better positioned for what marginal improvements can be made.

If the United States and Israel work together, the chances rise that Assad will fall and something better will take his place – an outcome best for Israelis, Americans, and the Syrian people.