Israel’s dilemma as the war intensifies

If Assad is removed, who will succeed him? Even if there is a viable successor, it is likely that the bloodshed will continue, with infighting between rebel groups and lots of scoresettling.

The turmoil in Syria, which threatens to shatter the Middle East in an unprecedented way, poses a dilemma for Israel. The Assad family has been an enemy of Israel for almost half a century. From direct military clashes in 1967, 1973 and 1982 to using indirect harassment via Hezbollah in Lebanon, Damascus has been high on the list of threats Israel faces in the region. This “axis of evil”, as Israeli strategists saw it, stretching from Tehran through Damascus to Lebanon, weighed like a nightmare. Therefore, seeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime crumbling in the face of the present uprising should be a blessing for Israel.

Furthermore, the recent events in Syria have triggered a series of developments that may have positive repercussions for Israel. Turkey, highly troubled by the crisis in the neighbouring country, may be inclined to overcome her past grievances against Israel and come closer, in order to form an old-new alliance in a troublesome Middle East. And Hezbollah, the Shia organisation that has presented itself as the defender of an Alawite-Sunni-socialist regime (don’t worry, the Middle East has seen stranger things than this), might soon find out that it has made a fateful blunder. Already, it has received near-universal condemnation in the Sunni world, and its position in Lebanon, undermined by the “Second Lebanon War” of 2006, will be further weakened.

On the other hand, for the past four decades, despite Syria’s wish to regain the Golan Heights (captured by Israel in 1967), the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet and Israel felt relatively safe, knowing that, while the Syrians had a deadly arsenal of missiles, the chances that they would be launched against Israel were slim, as long as a strong and responsible Syrian leader was in charge. If Assad is removed, who will succeed him? Even if there is a viable successor, it is likely that the bloodshed will continue, with infighting between rebel groups and lots of scoresettling. Al-Qaeda, a player in the war, might turn out to be the winner. Is that the preferred scenario for Israel, on its northern doorstep?

Grappling with this dilemma, Israel’s military planners decided on cautious non-involvement. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) responded in a measured way to skirmishes on the Syrian border on the Golan Heights, going out of their way not to let them escalate. The last thing Israel needs is to give Assad an excuse to divert the violence within Syria towards a common external enemy.

In the meantime, Israeli leaders, unlike the IDF, couldn’t restrain themselves and made announcements that were perceived as taking sides. Prime Minister Netanyahu rightfully hushed them up.

There was an exception, however, to this general restraint, when the air force – according to sources from outside Israel – attacked a stockpile of weaponry inside Syria which was destined for Hezbollah. This was a surgical operation, which not only destroyed its target but also carried a message to Damascus that Israel would not tolerate a change in the strategic balance between itself and Hezbollah.

Following in the footsteps of the strike on the Syrian nuclear installation in September 2007 (again, reported by foreign sources, as Israel does not officially confirm or deny such actions), Israel once more hoped to show brinksmanship without the dispute turning into war. It has worked in the past, but I wonder if it will work in future. A desperate Assad might clutch at any straw to escape the wrath of his people.

My prediction is that unless a large-scale western intervention occurs, Assad will survive. He may be drastically weakened, but still he will be stronger than his fragmented opponents. There is nothing Israel could – or should – do about it, except to protect its interests in extreme cases only.

Last but not least is the moral dimension. The political and strategic debate on what to do vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war obscures how this bloody struggle has already taken the lives of as many as 80,000 people. The general indifference of the world to this bloodshed is appalling. As Israelis in general, and as Jews in particular, I don’t think we should be part of this apathy, for good historical reasons. When my fellow Israelis ask me about this, I urge them not to shrug their shoulders in the face of the carnage just because – as some see it – “Arabs are killing Arabs”.

I hope the stories about the Syrian wounded being treated in Israeli hospitals are true; and if more can be done on the humanitarian level, so much the better.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992-96

Israelis look at the nearby Syrian village of Jebata al-Khashabn from an Israeli army post near the border in Golan Heights. Photograph: Getty Images
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit