The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared, at the outset of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, “I extend [Israel’s hand] to the people of Syria, Lebanon and Iran, with awe at the courage of those fighting brutal repression.” However, less than a month later, Netanyahu said that an Islamic wave – that is, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, and ultimately anti-democratic – was washing through the Arab countries. Given the accelerating events on the ground throughout the region, the Israeli leadership started to re-evaluate its stance toward the ongoing events that were taking place throughout the Middle East.
The Israeli intelligence services have had to analyze and brainstorm over possible alternatives to the current regime should Syrian President Bashar Assad be toppled, as well as the kind of security developments that would ensue as a consequence of his removal. Israel has decided not to adopt “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle in the case of Syria – because it believes that all sides of the conflict there are hostile to the Jewish state.
Previously, and although Syria and Israel are officially in a state of war, the Syrian regime has for a long time managed to respect the red lines that have been set by the Israeli leadership. Undeclared trust between the two regimes has developed during this period, and the Israel-Syria border has remained more or less quiet since the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973.
Despite the fact that the Assad regimes have largely managed to preserve some sort of calm along the border with Israel, a victory for the forces of the Syrian president in the current conflict would be regarded by Israel as a victory for Hezbollah and Iran – both of which are now actively participating in the Syrian conflict. A win for the Assad regime would allow Iran to extend its ability to project power regionally – which would make it more of an acute threat to Israel.
The Syrian opposition does not represent a desirable alternative for Israel either, as hostile and armed Islamist groups dominate the forces of the Syrian opposition. Commenting on this, the head of intelligence in the Israeli armed forces, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has remarked that “right before our eyes a center of global jihad is developing on a scale that may affect the borders of the state of Israel.”
Israel particularly dreads the idea that Syrian chemical weapons may fall into the hands of Islamist radicals, and that these weapons may be turned against Israel. A barrier that runs along most of the boundary between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is expected to be completed this month to prevent any attempts from radical groups to cross the border and attack Israeli citizens or soldiers.
What could Israel do to deal with the dual threats from Syria? A prolonged conflict that produces maximum destruction to both sides may be the best way to guarantee Israel’s security and its future. There are three principal reasons for this:
First, the war in Syria is creating an anti-Iranian sentiment in some parts of the country and in the rest of the Arab world. This has produced a de facto alignment between many of the Arab countries and Israel, one that distracts from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Second, Syria’s conflict is depleting Iran’s resources at a time when the country is already reeling from the impact of economic sanctions. A few thousand Hezbollah fighters are also involved in the Syrian fighting, and many of the group’s combatants who fought against Israel for two decades have either been killed or wounded in Syria. A prolonged conflict is likely to turn Syria into Iran’s Vietnam – exhausting both Iran and Hezbollah and straining their resources.
And third, as long as the conflict is going on in Syria, Israel no longer faces pressure to cede the Golan Heights, which it has occupied after seizing the plateau from Syria in the 1967 war.
The Arab Spring has produced a great deal of change in Israel’s political and strategic environment. Not only has it led to the fall of some of Israel’s allies, for example the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the emergence of new regimes that are less inclined to establish relationships with the Israeli government; it has also added a new factor to the process of Arab decision-making – the popular will of the people, which may not accept security arrangements with Israel in the future, once their wars are over.
Haian Dukhan is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Syrian Studies of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).