Should Israel Maintain Its Policy of Non-Intervention in Syria?

By January 26, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 402

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Groupthink seems to be guiding Israel’s Syria policy, which remains limited to the prevention of the flow of “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah and the establishment of a Hezbollah/Iranian Revolutionary Guard military presence in southern Syria bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. The recent major changes in the balance of power in favor of Iran and its allies in Syria call for a more interventionist and publicly declared Israeli strategy in support of Syria’s rebels to balance against Iran and its allies.

Groupthink in Israel should have been laid to rest after the Agranat Commission’s investigation into the massive intelligence failure preceding the Yom Kippur War. The Commission not only censured Israel’s elite for its failure to discern the coming Egyptian and Syrian attack, due to a set of uncontested assumptions that proved totally false, but advocated the establishment of a variety of independent institutional sources of information to assure that such an event would not occur again.

That has proved easier said than done. Groupthink again seems to prevail over Israel’s position on Syria. All praise Israel’s current policy, which limits Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war to clearly defined red lines: to prevent the flow of weapons to Hezbollah that threaten the balance of power, and to prevent the establishment of a Hezbollah/Iranian Revolutionary Guard military presence in southern Syria bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. Israel has acted forcefully to maintain both of these red lines.

But the balance of power between Syria and its ally Iran against their opponents has changed significantly since the Russian intervention in September 2015. The defeat of the rebels in Aleppo restored complete regime control over that city, the country’s largest and arguably richest city before the civil war. The regime has also made gains in the southern outskirts of Damascus. The Iranian-Hezbollah alliance in Lebanon has succeeded in placing its candidate in the presidential palace. Above all, ethnic cleansing is taking place in southern Syria bordering Israel’s Golan Heights, and in areas east of Damascus bordering Lebanon (where the Syrians and Hezbollah are driving out Sunnis and replacing them with Shiites from Iraq and Lebanon[i]). These are sufficient developments to seriously question the sagacity of Israel’s “hands-off” approach to Syria.

Syria, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, is creating the physical underpinnings of an imperial, Iran-dominated, Shiite-Alawite crescent extending from Tehran to Beirut to Syria’s south. This is to the detriment of Israel’s long-term strategic interests, as well as to the interests of moderate Sunni states such as Jordan. Recall that these gains supplement Iran’s success in securing the nuclear deal.

It is also worthy of note that Saad al-Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s largest, mostly Sunni party and the fiercest opponent of Hezbollah and its allies in the political arena (an international court ruled that this alliance assassinated Saad’s father, Rafik, the prime minister of Lebanon, in 2004), felt compelled to support the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah-backed candidate. This demonstrates how Hariri, Israel’s silent partner, perceives the changing balance of power. He did it only out of fear.

Just as Hariri perceives the threat, so should Israel. Yet Israel’s security establishment, major politicians, journalists, and commentators are failing to take note of the strategic threat these developments collectively pose to Israel and the need to debate the existing strategy. The threat has far-reaching geo-strategic implications that transcend by far the “technical” perception of the Syrian civil war that pervades the Israeli establishment’s groupthink.

The question is, what should Israel’s strategy be towards Syria?

The most important issue is to initiate a serious debate over Israeli objectives, which of course will have to take into consideration relations with Russia, a possible understanding between Presidents Trump and Putin over Syria, and even Turkish interests in the country. Still, the following objectives might be included:

  • Israel could publicly declare that the political future of Syria impinges on Israel’s security and therefore justifies a more proactive posture to assure an outcome favorable to Israeli interests.
  • The major Israeli interest is to see a democratic regime in Syria. This means the removal of Assad and his supporters, who cannot possibly allow democracy to emerge in Syria. Announcing this objective must naturally take into account its possible repercussions in terms of Israeli-Russian relations.
  • Israel could declare the position that if a democratic regime proves impossible, the Sunnis, after fifty years of oppression, deserve a state of their own in most of Syria.
  • Israel should publicly state that it will cooperate with the Syrian opposition and the moderate Sunni Arab states to achieve either the second or third objective and will support the moderate rebel groups to thwart Assad’s ethnic cleansing.

It is important to note that Hariri acted as he did in part because the Sunnis in Syria and supporters of democracy from other sects, including the Alawites, are not getting nearly the backing the Assad regime is getting from its allies. Israel, a much more powerful state than it was in the past, should play a role in redressing this imbalance.

Israel cannot possibly be a king-maker after the US failure in Iraq or its own failure in Lebanon in 1982 to create a Maronite-dominated Lebanon. But that does not mean the Jewish State cannot work with Syrian forces towards creating a geo-strategic scenario in its favor in Syria. Just as doing too much can be costly, so can passivity prove dangerous. It is not in Israel’s interest to allow its major enemies to carve out the Syria they want. At the very least, a debate should take place over Israel’s present policies on Syria.

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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

[i]  Martin Churlov, “Iran repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to help tighten regime’s control,” The Guardian, January 14, 2017.

Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.