Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
Following news of Israel’s weekend airstrikes in Syria, Brookings experts examine the implications of Israel’s actions, analyze Syria and Hezbollah’s possible responses, and offer foreign policy recommendations for the United States. Daniel Byman, Michael Doran, Suzanne Maloney, Kenneth M. Pollack, Natan Sachs, Salman Shaikh, and Tamara Cofman Wittes weigh in on the latest developments.
The Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the past few days were an instance of a standing Israeli policy: preventing, by all means necessary, the transfer of “game changing” weapons to either Asad’s ally, Hezbollah, or—of increasing Israeli concern—to extremist groups among the Syrian opposition. Such weapons include not only chemical weapons from Syria’s large stockpile but also advanced conventional weapons such as Russian anti-aircraft missiles or the Iranian Fateh 110 surface to surface missiles Israel reportedly targeted this weekend (missiles with significantly larger payload, better accuracy and longer range than most existing Hezbollah weaponry, such that Israelis cities would be under considerably more threat from Hezbollah than in the past).
The Israelis are betting that their actions do not backfire, either by provoking a larger conflict with Hezbollah or the Asad regime or by influencing the Syrian civil war in unpredictable ways (see this piece Dan and I wrote in Foreign Policy). Israel, in its view, has no horse in the race in Syria. It has no love for the Asad regime but is deeply wary of the potential for chaos or for an extremist takeover of parts of Syria. The Israeli stance has been, therefore, to take action on tangible, operational intelligence as it emerges but to refrain from involvement in the civil war itself; to protect its vital interests while remaining largely outside the fray.
But acting on the tactical and operational level without influencing the situation at large can be a difficult balancing act. Israel would provide the perfect foil for the Syrian regime or for Hezbollah, both of whom are mired in a bloody civil war where they on the wrong side, in popular Arab eyes. A diversionary conflict with Israel would offer them an out from the ire of the Arab publics, as the renewed anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Syrian regime in the past few days has demonstrated. Indeed, Israel was on alert in its north, deploying Iron Dome batteries, temporarily closing off the northern civilian airspace and ramping down a planned military exercise, for fear of stoking the flames. But Israel remains relatively confident that the situation will remain under control—Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu departed the country for a state visit to China—with both the Asad regime and Hezbollah wary of opening a front with the vastly more powerful Israel, and especially its airpower, while they struggle to hold their positions on the ground in Syria.
First, I’d like to just note that three Israeli strikes with non-stealthy aircraft cast some doubt on the Administration’s alarmism about Syria’s vaunted air defenses. Indeed, I wonder if that isn’t also in the back of Bibi’s head—demonstrating just how poor Syrian air defenses actually are.
Second, I would like to resurrect some of my comments from my blog post from last week: namely that whether the regime retaliates against Israel will be driven by its assessment of the fight with the opposition. As long as the regime feels it has a prospect of beating the rebels, it won’t retaliate for fear of an escalatory spiral with Israel. They are very wary of taking on the IDF while they are fighting for their lives against the Sunnis–as long as they think they can win that fight. However, once they become concerned that they cannot win that fight, then the regime’s incentive structure flips and it becomes more likely that they will retaliate against Israel, since the possibility of transforming the contest into an Arab-Israeli war outweighs whatever damage the Israelis could do once they conclude that they are doomed anyway. Right now, I do not believe the regime has reached that level of desperation, so I doubt they retaliate.
First, Israel seems intent on defending its “red lines” and has already acted to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; responded directly to fire from Syrian army units in the Golan Heights; and sounded the alarm on the use of chemical weapons.
With regard to the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, it has shown that it is willing to change the ‘rules of engagement’ with the Assad regime and hit these weapons inside Syria. In doing so, it is seeking to establish a new level of deterrence with respect to such activities. Certainly, the latest strikes against weapons depots and reportedly the headquarters of the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard as well as the 4th Division commanded by Bashar’s brother, Maher Assad are punitive and painful. The psychological effects that such strikes could have on the senior officer core, particularly the Alawite officers, who form the backbone of the army and its security forces will be worth watching. In a short period of time, the certainty of the previous 40 years of “cold peace” has been replaced by the realisation that Israel will strike again and harder if Asad continues to supply Hezbollah.
The likely response from the Assad regime, as has already been the case since the strikes over the weekend, is to exploit the propaganda value of Israel’s “aggression” and attempt to link it with efforts to aid the opposition’s rebel forces. The Free Syrian Army has condemned the “Israeli aggression” but denied any connection to it. The Syrian National Coalition has responded by engaging in “verbal acrobatics” by condemning the attacks but also blaming Assad for weakening the country.
What will matter is the effect that this will have on the large number of people, particularly in the cities, who have not openly sided with either the regime or the opposition. If the situation escalates, the regime could gain ground by hammering the message that Israel has sided with rebels and extremists and that only the regime can protect the unity of Syria in this difficult period.
Key states in the Arab world, at least rhetorically, seem to be following suit. In addition to the predictable condemnations from the Syrian regime’s supporters in Lebanon and Iraq, statements from President Morsi of Egypt and the Saudi government have condemned Israel’s “violation of international law” and pointed to its dangerous consequences for the region. Meanwhile, the Arab League Secretary-General called it “a blatant aggression and a serious violation of an Arab country’s sovereignty.” He has also called for the UN to take action (never mind the League’s silence over the recent massacres in Baniyas and the alleged use of chemical weapons).
Whether these statements reflect the views of Arab publics is debatable. For now at least, the focus will likely remain on the Assad regime’s brutal use of force against its own people. The majority of Arabs, particularly Sunni Arabs are angry with Assad and resentful of the support that Hezbollah and the Iranians have provided to him. However, the suspicions that many in the region have towards Israel’s actions will likely grow if the attacks continue and if these are perceived as only furthering Israel’s interests.
For U.S. policy, my concern is that several important U.S. allies—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and now Israel— are involved in significant ways. And other neighbors, notably Lebanon and Iraq, are suffering increasing instability from the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, the instability from Syria is steadily spreading beyond its borders. Even beyond the human cost, the United States has long had its own interests, including counterterrorism, in playing a more decisive role. Now the problem is metastasizing, and U.S. allies might work at cross purposes, and their actions may end up harming each other in the end.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dan. The issue for me is the abdication of American leadership. I cannot remember another time when the United States was so noticeably absent from a major issue— the major issue— in Middle Eastern international politics. It’s important to make a distinction between leadership and direct intervention. Often when people call for a more robust American policy, they are shut down with a pointed question: “What do you want, another Iraq war?” But there is much that the United States could do, short of military intervention, to coordinate the activities of its allies. Leadership requires, before anything else, a clear vision of the future— a picture of an end state that is both desirable and achievable. The United States has no vision whatsoever of the outcome that it would like to see in Syria. It does not even have a clear definition of its major interests in the conflict. The only interest that the Obama administration has clearly articulated is its desire to remain aloof.
Syrian activists on the ground and in exile are at least ambivalent about the Israeli strikes, and some are downright celebratory. But the Egyptian government and the Arab League were quick to issue statements denouncing Israeli interference. Given the involvement of Arab League members and the League itself in Syria’s internal crisis, the latter condemnation in particular was thick with irony. But just as the speedy criticisms from Cairo reflect the ongoing nationalist sensitivity there, the controversy in the rest of the Arab world over how to respond to the Israeli strikes likewise underscores the ways in which the Arab Awakening— and the Syrian conflict most pointedly— has upended once-comfortable principles regarding sovereignty, Arab nationalism, and non-intervention in internal affairs.
The Israeli air strikes have been interpreted by many as a message to Tehran, hardly surprising given Iran’s central role in providing materiel support to Bashar Al Asad and its reliance on Damascus as both a bulwark against regional isolation and a conduit to its proxies in the Levant. What is interesting is Tehran’s response – not simply the predictable fulminations from senior officials and clerics, but the stepped-up pace of Iran’s diplomatic outreach on Syria. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Amman today for talks, just in time to announce a visit to Tehran next week by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani.
This is the latest indication of Iran’s underlying objective with respect to the conflict in Syria – ensuring that the Islamic Republic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of the outcome of the civil war. This imperative has shaped a hedging strategy from the outset of the unrest: Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue. Tehran’s hedging here goes beyond protecting its equities and bolstering regime security; there is a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism, which Iran has rightly viewed as a threat since the emergence of the Taliban more than two decades ago.
The concept of Iranian engagement on Syria is anathema to Washington, for good reason. And yet it should not be reflexively blocked by an Obama Administration that is under fire for its absurd public dithering on Syria. Iranian diplomatic engagement on Syria will not preclude troublemaking by Tehran; however, excluding Iran from the contentious regional politics surrounding the conflict is a recipe for inflaming the situation even further. Any long-term stable outcome in Syria will require neutralizing Iran’s incentives for sabotage as well as stemming the sectarian violence brewing amidst the conflict.