It is time for Israel to reconsider, in coordination with the United States, its policy toward the Syrian civil war.
For nearly four years, since March 2011, Israel has been sitting on the fence. Israeli policymakers and analysts are divided into two schools with regard to Syria’s future. The first, known as “the devil we know” school, argues that with all his faults Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are preferable to an Islamist or jihadist alternative, and to the anarchy that is likely to ensue should the regime collapse. The other school argues that as the 2006 war in Lebanon amply demonstrated, the axis of Iran, Assad’s Syria, and Hezbollah presents a far more serious threat to Israel.
Israel’s passive stance on Syria
This debate has not been decided and the absence of a clear cut choice has contributed to the largely passive stance taken by Israel. This trend has been reinforced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caution and preference for the status quo, as well as by the conviction that Israel’s ability to help shape the future of Syrian politics is hampered by the opposition’s reluctance to be seen as Israel’s allies or proxies. The regime’s narrative has been from the outset that this is not an authentic civil war, but rather a conspiracy hatched from the outside, by Syria’s enemies.
In fact, Israel has not been entirely passive. It acted several times to interdict arms transfers to Hezbollah, has responded to minor provocations along the ceasefire line in the Golan, and has tacitly offered humanitarian aid. But of Syria’s five neighbors, Israel, Syria’s enemy and intermittent negotiating partner, has been the least involved in and least affected by the devastating civil war.
This may be changing now as the result of three major developments:
- The regime’s success, with massive help from Iran and its Lebanese’s proxy, with Hezbollah, to consolidate its hold on the 40 percent or so of Syria’s territory that it controls.
- The weakening of the moderate, secular, or mildly Islamist opposition as both a military and a political actor.
- The apparent decision by Iran and the Hezbollah to intensify its presence and activity in the Syrian Golan and to extend Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel from the Lebanese-Israeli border to the Golan Heights.
This last development represents a curious reversal of roles. In the 1990s, Syria negotiated peace with Israel and operated against it in South Lebanon and through Lebanon, thus preserving a quiet front in the Golan. Hezbollah is now trying to keep its own border with Israel relatively quiet while preparing and testing the ground for opening a new front with Israel in the Golan.
Recent tensions between Israel and Hezbollah
This development came to a head last month. On January 18, Israel (without taking responsibility) destroyed two vehicles in the Golan killing an Iranian general and the son of Imad Moughniya, Hezbollah’s chief of operations, who was killed in Damascus in a car bomb in 2008. Hezbollah retaliated by attacking an Israeli convoy at the foothills of Mount Hermon with rockets, killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding several others. In the aftermath of these events, both sides signaled to one another that they were not interested in an escalation and quiet was restored. On January 28, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, delivered one of his fiery speeches. While saying that he was not interested in a war with Israel, he asserted that he was not afraid of one, that he did not recognize Israel’s “rules of engagement,” and that
The martyrs who fell in Qunaitra reflected a fusion of Lebanese-Iranian blood on Syrian territory, and also reflected the unity of the cause and the unity of the fate and the battle of these countries [against Israel]. When blood unites Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, then we will enter an era of victory.
–Daily Star, January 31, 2015
When Nasrallah repudiates “the rules of engagement,” he is in fact saying that the deterrence achieved by Israel after the 2006 war in Lebanon no longer exists. Indeed, the Israeli defense establishment has sensed for some time now that Hezbollah conducts itself more aggressively and is preparing an infrastructure in the Syrian Golan for attacks against Israel. The Israeli operation was intended to signal to Hezbollah that this new line of conduct is not acceptable to Israel. But the clashes of late January ended in a draw. The draw is illustrative of the fact that Israel cannot achieve easy victories in a new war of attrition with Hezbollah. The danger of deterioration to war is another problem, and while such a war would probably end in an Israeli victory, its cost might very well be prohibitive.
In these circumstances, Israel’s best option is to signal to Hezbollah and to its Iranian patrons that its response to escalation along the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Golan will not be local, and that it may well target major units and installations of Assad’s regime, thus affecting the course of the Syrian civil war. This would not be a simple or easy decision. In the current conditions in Syria, it may play to the hands of the Islamic State and run against the grain of the Western offensive against it. It could also trigger a significant Syrian response. This is a call the Israeli leadership will have to make if the trends observed last January continue, and that call would have to be made in close coordination with Washington in order to dovetail it with U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq. Caution and restraint may well prevail, but the foundation for the first major change in Israel’s policy towards the Syrian civil war has been laid.