Commentary

Israel sees new and dangerous threats in Syria

In the short term, the crisis in Syria has temporarily reduced the danger to Israel from its traditional foes in Syria and Lebanon. But new and dangerous threats from emergent actors in the arena – some of them latent, some of them who are already present – are a source of growing concern for the Israeli government and the security forces. For Israel, the Syrian situation is, in many ways, a lose-lose situation.In the past, Israel and Syria learned how to send signals to each other – whether covertly, overtly, by proxy, or at times through the use of force. However, the Syrian uprising-turned-civil-war has led to the fragmentation of control over Syria and its many military assets between the regime and the growing number of opposition groups.

Led at first by local, largely secular, rebels, Syria quickly became a magnet for radical Islamists and foreign fighters from throughout the region and beyond, and these groups now dominate the Syrian opposition. From the viewpoint of decision-makers in Israel, the civil war in Syria has removed the threat of conventional war with that country and has replaced it with a myriad new threats that the Israeli leadership is unsure of how to handle. These threats stem from the dynamics within the camps of those who support President Bashar Assad and those who are on the side of the rebels.

If Assad stays in power, even if only in a part of Syria, he will remain indebted to Iran – thereby increasing the Islamic Republic’s ability to project power throughout the Middle East. The same applies to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, whose involvement in several recent crucial battles, particularly in Qusair and Homs, at one point appeared to turn the tide of war in favor of the Assad regime.

Ultimately, a victorious outcome for the Syrian regime would dramatically bolster the prestige and power of Tehran and its allies – all of them sworn enemies of Israel. Reports that the Syrian president is being pressured by Iran to allow it to open a new front against Israel from the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights, together with the declining willingness of United Nations peacekeepers to patrol the armistice line due to the growing danger they face from both the regime and rebel forces, keep Israeli decision-makers up at night.

As for the Syrian opposition, the Sunni jihadist military groups that dominate the forces that are opposed to the Assad regime (some of which have apparently recently begun operating in Lebanon too) hold Israel in as much contempt as they do Bashar Assad and his backers. The overthrow of the Syrian president could leave behind a failed Syrian state infested with radical Islamists and located at Israel’s doorstep.

The final concern for Israel is that almost two and a half years into the conflict all sides are by now experienced and battle-hardened, despite their suffering severe casualties and loss of equipment. As Brig. Gen. Tamir Haiman, the outgoing commander of the Israeli army division that is stationed in the Golan Heights, has put it: “Friction results in learning, and the Syrians are better fighters today than they were two years ago.” Through what has been coined “tactical Darwinism” – the concept that combat weeds out the less proficient fighters, and that those who survive what takes place on the battlefield are likely also the best soldiers and commanders – Assad’s forces and Hezbollah’s, as well as the groups that are fighting them, will emerge better soldiers. In the long run, this does not bode well for Israel or for its neighbors.

Israel has benefited in the short term from the dissipation of a decades-old threat from the Syrian army, and to a lesser degree from the threat posed by Hezbollah. But looking ahead, the Israelis see the rise of multiple alternative threats that are much harder to predict, deter, or contain. No matter which side ultimately triumphs in Syria, or whether the stalemate there will become a long-term status quo, Israel will be faced with a difficult new situation on its northern border, one which will likely leave it wishing for the old days of stability.

Oded Raanan is a doctoral candidate at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 23, 2013, on page 7.

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