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.

Israelis look at the nearby Syrian village of Jebata al-Khashabn
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

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