Syria is one of Israel’s principal immediate military threats. The situation today with respect to Syria’s threat to Israel is complicated as a result of the on-going outrageous civil war in Syria and the threat from ISIS to its surrounding borders.
The fighting throughout Syria has created new instability on Israel’s northern border and increased the prospect of an even more dangerous ISIS coming to power. Israel has issued a concealed threat to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war for the first time, after Syrian rebels surrounded a village occupied by the Druze minority close to the border. The village of Khadr was surrounded by rebels and Druze leaders in Israel and the Golan Heights warned that they might storm the frontier to save their relatives, fearing a sectarian massacre. Israel is concerned about being drawn into the Syrian on-going war if fighting spills over the border and announced that it would do what is necessary to help Syria’s Druze and warned Syrian rebel groups operating in southern Syria not to attack and to stay away from Khadr.
The potential upside of the new Middle East war for Israel is that Bashar Assad can be driven out from power and the new leadership likely led by Sunni Muslims will end Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, weakening both. This likely outcome explains why Iranian and Hezbollah fighters have joined hands in the fight to save Assad-Israeli position on the Syrian conflict. Israel is torn between an opportunity to limit the Syrian regime and anxiety over the threat of chaos on its northern border and the ultimatum from the Syrian rebels and ISIS fighting Syrian government forces.
Hostility between Syria and Israel goes back to the countries’ creation in the late 1940’s, driven by Syria’s support for the Palestinian resistance against the new Jewish state. Syria and Israel went to war in 1948, 1967 and 1973, which ended with the Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights region. Recovering the lost territory was the central doctrine of Syrian foreign policy under Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000), who became Israel’s most unforgiving Arab nemesis.
However, after failing to retrieve back the Golan Heights in the 1973 war, the callus but pragmatic and calculated Hafez al-Assad decided to avoid direct confrontation. Instead, he achieved restraint capacity by drawing an alliance with the new Islamic regime in Iran in the early 1980s. After coagulating Syria’s dominance over Lebanon after the end of the civil war in that country in 1990, Assad maintained pressure on Israel by supporting militant groups on the border, chiefly Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. This was the strategic stage inherited by Assad’s son Bashar al- Assad in 2000, who, for the most, part followed his father’s script. For Israel, Bashar al-Assad was an enemy, but an enemy it did not exactly know how to avoid most.
The revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011 presented Israel with a great strategic dilemma. Whereas on the one hand, the collapse of Assad’s regime would have given a stupendous inspiration to Israel’s position, removing Syria as a culvert for weapons transferring from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, with Assad out of the picture, Syria’s post-Assad future is widely uncertain, given the disorganised and chaotic divisions in the Syrian opposition.
Most threatening for Israel is the prominent role of ISIS and Syria’s armed opposition hardliner Islamist militias groups, such as the Al Nusra Front. A disorderly Syrian state and largely in cohesive government troops could provide ISIS and militants with a safe haven to launch operations into neighbouring countries, along with access to Syria’s military arsenal which is suspected to include chemical weapons. Israeli intelligence would be taking this scenario very seriously and the presence of ISIS on Israel’s northern border could pose a security threat more imminent than that of Iran’s nuclear program.
In the situation today, Israel is apparently not on the forefront to shape the events in the neighbouring country because Israel is aware that in the worst case scenario, it could be facing a permanent low-intensity war with various militant groups and ISIS in the Golan Heights, not very dissimilar to the situation in the Gaza Strip. The “axis of resistance” between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah has turned out as a strategic charter of convenience. One reason for this remarkably durable alliance is the longstanding Shite Sunni conflict which has intensified by the alliance from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Western-allied Sunni Arab countries against Syria.
The meeting between Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have calmed the anxiety for Israel. The Russians agreed that they will not put Israel’s strategic interests at risk in Syria and they would not help Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons increase their already significant influence in Syria. In return, Israel has reassured the Russians that it would not help those trying to eliminate their ally. Israel is of the view that Russia’s main strategic interest in Syria is maintaining its warm-water port in Tartus, in addition to make a geopolitical point by keeping Assad in power. Long and delicate Russia-Israel alliance engaged Israel to not to sell arms to their rivals in neighbouring countries, Ukraine and Georgia. At the same time when Israel has even supplied Russia with drone technology, Russia has continued supplying weapons to Israel’s enemies, but has so far resisted supplying advanced systems such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran due to the pressure from Israel. Israel has also largely turned a blind eye to Russian activities on its border, including the maintenance of a GRU (Russian military intelligence) listening-base on the Syrian side of the Golan.
Russia has become the principal player of the new global war on terrorism. Even if this is a little more than a political theatre, the last thing Russia would want now is a fight with Israel. Israel has made it clear to Russia that it has serious concerns and issues with Iran and Hezbollah, but no real problems in the region with or without Assad. Reluctantly, Barack Obama has told the UN General Assembly that the US alone cannot impose stability on a foreign land. Obama is convincingly right here but the US disengagement sets a premise which invites many arguments including chaotic disarray among regional powers, and Russia’s exploiting intervention which will make an ugly war uglier still.