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Al Assad is still Israel's strategic choice in Syria

January 24, 2014 at 10:33 am

The Syrian conflict has dragged on for two years and claimed more than 80,000 lives. So far, the west has avoided direct intervention, though the US, Britain and France are giving the rebels funding and weaponry. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are providing support to the regime. The closest we have seen to direct intervention so far was a string of aerial attacks carried out by Israel against Syrian military installations near Damascus earlier this month. Reportedly, around 100 people were killed.

The attacks were focused only on the destruction of weapons depots: Israel is terrified that Syria’s supply of chemical weapons will fall into the hands of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Israel’s old adversaries. Despite this unilateral action, it is notable that neither Israel, not any of its western allies, has given any indication they will intervene further.

Why is this? In the US, several Republican senators have made the case for humanitarian intervention in Syria. They have advocated providing the rebels with lethal weaponry, enforcing no-fly zones so that refugees can escape, and carrying out offshore airstrikes to degrade Syria’s air force. But beyond this handful of hawks, there is little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill, or amongst the public, for military action. The Obama administration has said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” beyond which action will be taken, it has otherwise been reluctant to speak of intervention.

There are several reasons for this. Obama is in the midst of withdrawing from Afghanistan, and does not want to get embroiled in another Middle Eastern war with no clear end point. He has described the mission in Iraq as a “dumb war”, and as the Syrian conflict becomes increasingly sectarian and complicated, believes that American intervention wouldn’t necessarily bring it to an end.

Israel, too, has its own reasons for not lobbying harder for intervention. Syria is certainly not its closest friend; Damascus has not even officially recognised Israel and the two countries are technically at war. However Israel has been able to count on the successive Assad governments (headed now by Bashar al-Assad and before, by his father, Hafez) to enforce the ceasefire in the Golan Heights, the disputed area on their shared border. Since 1974 when the agreement was struck, the border has been quiet.

In a recent article for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Foreign Affairs website, Efraim Halevy, former Mossad chief (1998-2002) argued that because of this understanding, “Jerusalem, ultimately, has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad.” He points out that “Israel’s most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed.”

There is also the worry – common to both Israel and western powers such as the US and UK – that Islamist elements are increasingly gaining ground within the ranks of the rebels. In post-Gaddafi Libya, extremist elements are running riot, and there is concern that a similar situation could be seen in Syria, where there is the added risk of Al-Qaeda seizing control of those notorious chemical weapons.

Of course, this is already an international conflict, and the regime is equally looking ever less attractive to Israel. The Syrian government still has control of the military, but is increasingly dependent on both Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (which also has ties to Iran). As the Israeli air strikes showed, it is likely there has been some transfer of weapons from Syria to southern Lebanon. The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Salehi recently said that his country would not allow Assad to fall, demonstrating their close involvement in the complex conflict.

As Halevy argues: “It is entirely conceivable, in other words, that a post-Assad regime in Syria would be explicitly pro–al Qaeda or even more openly pro-Iran. Either result would be unacceptable to Israel.” He is writing about the Israeli position, but to an extent, the same is true for America, currently locked into a battle of wills with Iran and a long-standing conflict with Al-Qaeda.

Despite anxiety about the conflict spilling over onto its borders, Israel is not agitating hard for intervention in Syria. One need only look at the contrast in its leaders’ rhetoric on Iran to see that. While this may be substantially to do with its desire to retain stability along its border, there is also the basic fact that it does not know which outcome would be less bad for its interests. Syria under the control of terrorists would be a disaster; but for Israel a country along its border even more closely indebted to Iran and Hezbollah would be a nightmare scenario, too. Undoubtedly, Israeli concerns come into American policy making in the Middle East, but this conundrum is equally vexing for the western powers. How can this conflict be resolved? What is the best outcome, for Syria, for the region, and for western interests? How would military intervention help, and what would be the end point? As the conflict gets more complicated, the answers are getting harder, not easier to find.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.