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Is Israel changing its strategy in Syria's war?

February 26, 2016 at 9:17 am

An article in Haaretz this weekend laid out an analysis purporting to show that the Israeli government is changing its approach to the war in Syria.

Amos Harel, the liberal daily’s military correspondent, cited some of the reasons for Israel to want the conflict in Syria to continue. The war to date has worn the Syrian army down “to a shadow of its former capabilities,” Hizballah, “Israel’s main adversary in the north,” has had to divert a large proportion of its fighting manpower into shoring up its ally Assad, and has suffered significant casualties as a result.

He sums up that “the war in Syria has largely served Israel’s interests”. This again confirms what I have long argued, based on what Israeli officials have openly stated for years now. Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, said in September 2013 they Israel wanted to let “both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here.”

In May 2015, Alex Fishman, a veteran Israeli security correspondent with Yediot Ahronot, confirmed that “let them bleed” was now “the official policy Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has dictated to the security establishment in light of the events in Syria.”

Amos Harel spells out the same policy with different wording: “Israel has been quietly wishing success to both sides and would not have been against the blood-letting continuing for a few more years without a clear victor.”

But, Harel says, with the intervention of the Russian air force last year, outright victory for the Syrian government is no longer looking unlikely. Therefore, the “let them bleed” policy is changing to emphatic support for the rebel side, Harel argues.

He explains the new thinking: “an Assad victory would be bad for Israel because it would also mean victory for Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah.”

However, I would argue that this does not at all amount to a new idea. Although the tactics may be changing based on the changed battlefield, the same aim is at work: prolong the war, let the blood-letting continue.

The intervention of the Russians has made it more likely that the Syrian government could now win an outright victory, thus bringing the war to an end (but not before a lot more deaths, including civilians). An end to the war is exactly what Israel doesn’t want. So they are now arguing for more aid to the rebel groups.

There have been signs of this for a while.

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, stated in a 2014 interview that Israel wants to “let the Sunni evil prevail” over the greater “evil” of Iran and its regional allies. Speaking in the context of a massacre of Iraqi soldiers, he seemed to be arguing that Israel should allow the “Islamic State” to win. His justification for this policy was that Iran has more sophisticated weaponry.

At a conference in Tel Aviv last month, top Israeli officials argued that they would prefer the presence of the Islamic State group in Syria over the presence of Iran. “I choose the Islamic State,” said Defence Minister Yaalon, “Our greatest enemy is the Iranian regime”.

And as I have covered extensively in this column, Israel has been directly aiding the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

According to Harel, the latest scheme is to ague for the aid of “the less extreme Sunni rebels and the Kurdish militias”.

Strange that Israel and the West never seem to be able to name these “moderate rebel” groups they wants to aid, resorting to strange phrasing like “less extreme” or “relatively moderate” rebels when push comes to shove.

None of this amounts to a fundamental change in strategy, aims or principles for Israel’s intervention in Syria. But it does show that Israel is adapting the same strategy to a changing battlefield.

While there has been a debate over the last five years in Israeli decision-making circles over whether to take a pro-or anti-Assad stance over the war in Syria, things do now finally seem to have come down on the anti- side.

Indeed, at recent peace talks in Munich, Israel did its best on the sidelines to sabotage efforts at aimed ending the five-year civil war. Israeli officials, again including Yaalon himself, argued for “sectarian partition of the country,” reported Reuters.

“I think that ultimately Syria should be turned into regions, under the control of whoever is there,” said Ram Ben-Barak, the director-general of Israel’s intelligence ministry, naming some of Syria’s many different religious sects.

Divide and conquer has long been a key imperial strategy in the region. As a settler-colonial entity, Israel continues this long and ignoble tradition.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.

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