Israel's Interests in Syria


BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 205

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: It is a mistake for Israelis to express support for Bashar Assad’s victory in Syria. Israel should stay out of the Syrian conflict altogether while hoping for the fall of Assad. Ultimately Israel would be better served by having a failed state next door than by having a strong, Iranian-backed entity there.

Several prominent Israelis have expressed their preference for a Bashar Assad victory in the civil war in Syria. This is a mistaken attitude for moral and strategic reasons.

First, siding with a dictator that butchers his own people, and even uses chemical weapons in order to stay in power, is morally disgusting. At the normative level, Assad’s brutal dictatorship is not an acceptable preference for a democratic state like Israel, even if the alternatives to Assad are not very enticing. (The Syrian opposition includes radical Sunni elements – such as al-Qaeda – that have not displayed great sensitivity to human rights either.) In the real world there is sometimes a tacit necessity to tolerate a dictatorship for a variety of reasons, but explicit support for it is a moral embarrassment.

Second, Israeli statements that favor a side in the domestic struggles within Arab entities are always a mixed blessing. Nobody in the Arab world wants to be “tainted” by an association with the Jewish or Zionist state. While links with Israel could be very useful, explicit closeness to Israel has an undesirable delegitimizing effect. Therefore, even if Israel has its favorites, Israeli leaders should keep their mouths shut.

Third, the idea that Israel can help engineer a certain political outcome among its unruly neighbors displays incredible intellectual and historical ignorance. Great Britain and France ruled the Middle East for decades and were not very successful in changing the ways the “natives” ran their affairs. In 1982, Israel was tempted to create a new political order in Lebanon and failed miserably. Additional grand failures include the twenty-first century efforts of the US to create an Iraq and an Afghanistan in its image. Change in this part of the world can come only from within by local leaders. Unfortunately, the Middle East has bred only despots of the worst kind, such as Saddam Hussein and the Assads, hardly leadership material that this region desperately needs to escape obscurantism, poverty, and oppression. The notable exception is Kemal Atatürk, whose accomplishments are currently being eroded by the AKP-led government in Turkey.

Fourth, and most importantly, support for Assad reflects flawed understanding of regional strategic realities. Syria under the Assad family has been the most stable ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East. Iran is the greatest strategic challenge to Israel’s national security, particularly because of its quest for nuclear weapons. The survival of the Assad regime is a paramount Iranian interest, in order to consolidate the Shiite crescent from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, which is precisely why Iran uses its influence in Iraq and Lebanon to send Shiite fighters to prop up the Alawite regime in Syria.

Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy and therefore weakening it should be Israel’s first priority in its foreign policy. The fall of Assad would be a great blow to Iran’s ambitions for Mideast dominance. It is in Israel’s interests that Iranian influence in the region be rolled back.

Ascribing moderation to the Assad family because it has kept the Golan Heights border quiet is somewhat misleading. During all those years, Syria did not hesitate to bleed Israel via its proxies in Lebanon, Hizballah and radical Palestinian groups. Moreover, the “moderate” Assad tried to develop a nuclear option with the aid of North Korea and Iran. If Assad stays in power he may try again. Moreover, open Israeli support for Assad puts Israel at loggerheads with much of the Sunni Arab world. At this stage, such posturing is not wise. Whatever the formal positions Sunni states display on Israel, they are Israel’s allies in the attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Siding with Assad undermines cooperation in this endeavor. A Saudi corridor for attacking Iranian nuclear installations is not a far-fetched scenario if Israel plays it smart in the Middle East.

Finally, the understandable preference for having strong states, rather than failed states, on Israel’s borders – because such states are easier deterred – is not necessarily a good rule of thumb. Instability in Syria, the probable outcome of the opposition’s victory, seems more dangerous than an Assad regime that has internalized the rules of the game. Yet, a stable Syria can become a rogue state like North Korea. History tells us that states do not always behave rationally and in a responsible way. Moreover, the fundamental truth is that states have greater capabilities than non-state organizations to inflict pain on their neighbors. Therefore, by definition strong states are more dangerous than failed states. Only strong states can support a long-range missile program or develop nuclear weapons. For example, a strong Salafist regime in Egypt is potentially more dangerous than an Egypt that has problems enforcing its sovereignty over all its territory. Chaos among Israel’s neighbors should not be altogether feared, as it weakens them. The most significant result of the Arab upheavals in recent years is the weakening of the Arab state, which has increased the power differential between Israel and its neighbors.

The Middle East must be approached with humility, particularly by small states such as Israel. Jerusalem cannot choose its neighbors and their regimes; it can only minimize their abilities to harm Israel. Therefore, Israel’s interests are very clear: stay out of the domestic struggles in Syria, and destroy any enemy military capabilities there that have a significant potential for harming Israelis.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Click here for a PDF version of this article

(Photo Credit: Flickr/FreedomHouse)

Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

6 Responses

Leave a Comment
  1. ByPeter Herring | 4 years ago

    A brilliant analysis by Prof. Inbar - just hope it pans out as he portrays - Iran is the enemy and the demise of their Syrian puppet essential.
    So important not to antagonize the Sunni factions who have every reason to destroy the Shia power base in Iran - the flow on effect would be a crippling blow to Hezbollah/Hamas.
    A future alliance with key Sunni states - (behind closed doors ) not totally illogical as the sectarian
    Shia/Sunni violence escalates.
    As Assad's power erodes expect missile strikes on Israel to deliberately provoke a response that he will then use for propaganda purposes.
    Sadly, while US support remains solid, Pres. Obama becoming increasingly unreliable. His tendency to make statements (redline on chemicals) and then back peddle is disturbing-he has surrounded himself with "yes" persons - a long way yet from being an elected dictator but the signs are there.....
    US seems to place too much importance on the Jihadist elements in the Syrian Opposition - use them as they are the best units - when/if Assad falls the Syrian people themselves will force them backstage - most are not Syrian nationals. At the moment it seems the US is using these fanatic minority elements simply as an excuse not to provide much needed conventional weapons to the FSA - they have repeatably stated they do not want US ground intervention - just conventional weapons...nothing too high tech.
    Bottom line Assad must be removed - the blood of 80,000+ civilians on his hands - many of them women, children and the elderly - If Israel kills one Palestinian terrorist the world media erupts - why then is there a stoney silence on the 80,000+ dead in Syria
    Something to think about..................

  2. ByDana Z. Booth | 4 years ago

    The Middle East must be approached with humility, particularly by small states such as Israel. Jerusalem cannot choose its neighbors and their regimes; it can only minimize their abilities to harm Israel. Therefore, Israel’s interests are very clear: stay out of the domestic struggles in Syria, and destroy any enemy military capabilities there that have a significant potential for harming Israelis.

  3. ByMEL EVANS | 4 years ago

    PROF INBAR'S analysis is right on, but leaves out one aspect, which is aiding the weaker Sunni rebels at this time would continue and extend the conflict. Having each side continue to attack and destroy each other would wear them down. Unlike the IRAQI-IRAN war, the survivor would not come out prepared for another war and this would keep ISRAEL out of the targets eye.

  4. ByFreeman Moody | 3 years ago

    The peace process has only marginally improved Israel's acceptance in the region. In addition to historical, cultural, and religious animosities, the majority of Arab states still view Israel as a hegemonic economic and military threat to inter-Arab competition for regional supremacy. The major states in the region have vested economic and political interests in not allowing Israel to become a fully integrated regional actor. Israeli withdrawal from the territories will not diminish Arab perceptions of Israel as an alien and unwelcomed regional interloper and will not resolve any of the fundamental core problems of the conflict.

  5. ByDoramin | 3 years ago

    Nearly forty years ago Assad Sr. assaulted the Golan with about 2000 tanks and 20,000 infantry. He failed. Syria remained one of Israel's most disciplined and intransigent enemies for decades.

    Now all is drifting on the wind. Syria is a hopelessly fractured, apocalyptic wasteland Does anyone seriously lose sleep nursing a vision of ragtag militias in "technicals" brushing aside Apaches and Merkavas and riding through Israel like Abu Bakr? Islamists don't do modern warfare. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is bleeding itself white in Syria and has already sacrificed its reputation as a strictly defensive Shi'ite militia. Soon it will be simultaneously fighting old enemies back in Lebanon.

    I don't like the footage and snapshots of suffering refugees and massacre victims any more than the next man--but let us please genug with the guilt and take the cynical Cardinal Richelieu view for now (the Thirty Years War has been applied to this situation more than once recently). Best, as well, to toss in Bonaparte's dictum; when your enemy is destroying himself, stay out of the way. I'm sure Sun-Tzu had something similarly pithy to say about such situations...

    One thing can be taken as a given, that all parties to this bloodletting hate Israel equally. If this ever finally shakes out, whoever is left may be able to lob a few rockets (which can be ruthlessly dealt with) but that's about it.

    Frankly, I don't see a downside here. Just keep hitting those arms convoys heading South and keep working on that Northern fence.

  6. […] Efraim Inbar, “Israel’s Interests in Syria,” BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 205, May 20, 2013, […]

Leave a Comment