Keeping All Cards Close to the Vest

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 458, May 1, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The US’s decision to strike Syria and the results of the referendum in Turkey will have a significant impact on Israel. It will not be easy to navigate between these conflicting forces and Middle East realities, but Israel must guard its interests.

Amid Passover (the festival of freedom), Holocaust Remembrance Day and the upcoming Independence Day, it is very difficult to write about daily events with a clear mind, as memories and emotions overwhelm one’s mind and heart. But it is precisely in the context of these historical lessons that it is imperative for a small country like Israel to consider the regional and global reality and avoid placing itself in situations where it may become difficult for it to defend its interests.

In the national context, the key interest should be clear: Israel must make sure that it can defend itself, by itself. This has many implications in real life, and not only in the military sphere.

Various political changes have taken place recently and each could potentially have long-term implications.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria in the wake of the April 4 chemical attack on Idlib province, as well as US maneuvers opposite North Korea over its defiant ballistic missile tests, indicate that Trump wants to restore the United States’ credibility as a superpower. Washington’s credibility was severely damaged during former President Barack Obama’s term in office, especially after he refrained from ordering military action when Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed an explicit red line and used chemical weapons on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013; and after, contrary to previous declarations, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran allowed it to maintain its nuclear enrichment program, even if in a limited scope.

Taking advantage of the obvious display of American weakness, Russia deployed in Syria, where it aids Assad in his war against the rebels, nearly immediately after the Iranian nuclear deal was signed. It is unclear at this time how Russia will respond to the US’s show of force as it attempts to re-establish its credibility. Still, the implications of this struggle, a part of which is taking place just off Israel’s northern border, may prove very important.

Israel has a clear interest in the outcome of the protracted Syrian civil war, especially given the fact that the April 6 American strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase has become a major point of contention between Moscow and Washington. Israel does not want to see Iran or Hezbollah lurking around its borders, but both lend Russia significant assistance in the efforts to keep Assad in power.

It won’t be easy for Israel to navigate all these conflicting powers. As a small country, Israel must always use caution, but it must also act with determination to ensure that its interests are not ignored.

Wary of Turkish backlash

Another notable shift is taking place in Turkey. When the results of the April 16 constitutional referendum are implemented, they will effectively turn Ankara’s regime into an “elected dictatorship,” affording whoever is elected president almost unlimited powers.

The Turkish people, as reflected in the referendum, are divided into two camps that vigorously oppose one another. Just like in the United States and Britain, Turkey’s larger, more developed cities, which have ties with the outside world, stand in contrast to the more rural areas that are traditional in the religious sense of the word (just as their British and French counterparts are traditional in the social-national sense of the word) and which turn inward in defense of their values while voting against the liberal worldview.

Traditional, Sunni Turkey is growing closer in its worldview to the Muslim Brotherhood, and it will have trouble getting other Sunni Arab states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to collaborate with it. The main objection is the Arabs’ opposition to Turkish leadership, as the memory of the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Arab world until about a century ago is far too fresh to be ignored. It would be wise to assume that a comprehensive conflict will soon arise between Iran, the leader of the Shiites, and Turkey, which aspires to lead the Sunnis.

Such an eventuality could see Israel emerge as a key player in a Middle Eastern system in which three centers of gravity stand out: an Arab-Sunni one, a Shiite-Iranian one and a Turkish one. None of the three is a natural friend of the Jewish state, so it must navigate the situation sensibly and make the most of its capabilities to improve its relations with any willing party, while at the same time neutralizing anyone who threatens it.

It sounds complicated, and it is indeed a very complex and delicate situation, but there is room for Israeli maneuvers that would make use of the differences and rivalries between these three forces, and of Israel’s ability to contribute as necessary wherever the opportunity to promote common interests presents itself.

In the past, there was talk of an “alliance of minorities,” with Israel playing a key role. Currently, what motivates such alliances, especially with the Sunni Arab states, is the desire to protect the existing order and prevent the Iranians and Salafi elements within the Sunni world from breaking the status quo.

The war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria could, in its own twisted way, strengthen the independent status of the Kurds in Iraq and perhaps even in Syria. The realization of such a move would bring about a drastic change in the region’s geostrategic reality, as its practical meaning is the division of Syria and Iraq according to ethnic and religious contours – a process that could lead to their total dismantling in the future.

The Kurds’ independence threatens mostly Turkey, which is home to the vast majority of the Kurdish people. A Kurdish split from Turkey would have significant territorial implications, which is why the Turks will do everything in their power, including an invasion of Kurdish areas in Syria, to prevent such a development. The fear of a harsh Turkish reaction may very well prevent this development, especially since the US is refraining from supporting the Kurds.

The end of the fighting in Syria itself is nowhere in sight. For a fleeting moment, after Assad’s forces regained control of Aleppo with the help of the Russian air force and Shiite militias, it seemed the Russians had succeeded in bringing the Syrian opposition to near-surrender at the negotiating table. But the April 4 chemical attack and the US’s decision to step onto the scene have changed the situation, and it seems unlikely negotiations will continue.

These are only a few of the events taking place, and we have yet to even mention the internal pressures in Jordan and Egypt – the neighboring states beyond Israel’s longest borders — or the Palestinians. It seems Israel may have to make it clear, potentially even by using moderate military force, that there are red lines that its enemies should not try to cross, and that it will nip new threats in the bud even at the cost of a military conflict. As a small country, with the lessons from the events we now mark on the Jewish calendar resonating, Israel must remain vigilant, yet determined.

This article previously appeared in Israel Hayom on April 28, 2017.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He is also a distinguished fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. 

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

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror
Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror

Former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel and the Head of the National Security Council. Served 36 years in senior IDF posts, including commander of the Military Colleges, military secretary to the Minister of Defense, director of the Intelligence Analysis Division in Military Intelligence, and chief intelligence officer of the Northern Command. Author of three books on intelligence and military strategy.