After Assad: Three Future Scenarios for Israel

NOTE: This policy briefing paper is focused on Israeli interests and potential policy routes.

Executive Summary

  • The current Syrian crisis, a complex and violent civil war that grew from a localised insurrection, creates both threats and opportunities for Israeli national security.

  • Syria and Israel share a border and a history of tense relationships and therefore Israel has a strong interest in various post-Assad scenarios.

  • There are three potential scenarios post-Assad: continuation of the civil war, a military coup, or a transition to democracy. Israel must find a policy which makes sense in any of these outcomes.

  • Israel could be more pro-active or passive but the best option would be to take a reactive stance.

Israeli interests in Syria

Israel desires peace and stability. This includes:

  • Preventing proliferation of advanced weaponry by hostile groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and potential Jihadi elements near Golan Heights, or any strengthening of these groups.

  • Safeguarding Israel against ‘spill over’ in the conflict.

  • Keeping a watchful eye on prospective regime change which could draw Israel into conflict unexpectedly.

  • Maintain further security development along the Golan front as previous incidents of civil disobedience by Palestinians in 2011 have raised concerns (see Saban Center 2012:6).

Israel also desires less Iranian or otherwise hostile influence in Israel’s neighbourhood. This includes:

  • Weakening Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon.

  • Preventing radical or hostile groups from gaining a significant hold on Syria during the civil war.

  • The preservation of US military threat.

  • Preventing the Syrian issue from distracting global attention away from Iran’s nuclear programme.

Context to the Syrian Civil War

  • The current Syrian crisis, a complex and violent civil war that grew from a localised insurrection in early 2011, creates both threats and opportunities for Israeli national security.

  • Located in the heart of the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has not insignificant regional consequences that have drawn many different actors in with varied levels of participation and vested interests.

  • The current situation has been transformed by the chemical weapons crisis and a Russian-led agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal has eliminated previously likely US military action.

Israeli-Syrian relations

Syria and Israel share a border and a history of tense relationships and therefore Israel has a strong interest in various post-Assad scenarios. An unstable Syria has major repercussions, but can be both a threat and opportunity to Israeli national security.

Border issues, with the Golan Heights of Israel once a part of Syria, have created conflict and peace agreements were not made despite numerous attempts. Syria is held responsible by Israel for much of its conflict with Hezbollah (a terrorist organisation), and Israel has retaliated by targeting locations in Syria with its air force as a warning against further escalation through Hezbollah.

Ariel Sharon’s comment of Assad being the “devil we know” of 2005 is widely quoted. However, with Syria funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad’s nuclear collaboration with North Korea, such a comment is no longer appropriate.

Three Scenarios

Whilst the most likely short-term scenario appears to be that the civil war will persist and the Assad regime prove resilient, it is important to recognise possible scenarios after Assad.

Regime change, could be brought about by oppositionist overthrow, a coup by insider regime elements, or outside military intervention. This could happen through a change in the tide of war, drastic deterioration in the Syrian government’s ability to provide basic needs, or a significant event such as an attempt by Assad to turn the civil war into another Arab-Israeli war.

Regime collapse could also occur by where the country descends into chaos with a power vacuum leading to greater participation of radical Islamist groups.

  • The first and most likely scenario is a continuation of the civil war, where the Assad regime falls but a stalemate persists; no effective central government means that Syria becomes a sectarian battleground and an attractive location for extremist forces. These forces may be more decisive if they are supported by outside actors through proxy wars, e.g. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States vs. Iran, Turkey vs. the Kurds alongside others.

  • The second scenario is military overthrow, this could come about in a wide range of circumstances, including outside military intervention, a change in the tide of the civil war, or even internal regime dissatisfaction with Assad’s leadership. The new regime would likely bring about democratic reforms and reconciliation of the different actors in the civil war to establish legitimacy and an attempt to guarantee stability, as well as popular support.

  • A third scenario would entail a transition to democracy, which could come about through unified opposition forces, providing basic needs alongside citizen representation and rights. This would not necessarily be stable, or create a balance between the different ethnic groups.

In each of these scenarios, there exists the possibility of sectarian strife, regional tensions, and a sudden fall of Assad. Israel must find a policy that works as a contingency for all of these.

Current Policy

Israel has sought to minimise involvement. However:

  • Policy makers and policy influencers are split. Some would prefer a familiar, if not amicable, regime to an unknown one, emerging from the Syrian rebel opposition (possibly radical Islamist).

  • Israel has intervened on separate occasions to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and terrorist organisations.

Israel has not sought to help keep Assad in power, who is seen as more harmful than beneficial , although this is debated. Prior to the Syrian uprising, the dominant view in Israel was to make a settlement and peace negotiations with Syria; the situation has changed and it is important to not disregard taking a strong stance.

Additionally, though the elimination of chemical weapons is welcomed at face value by Israel, it has consequences that are not:

  • US military action discredited (empty threats, U-turns on red lines)

  • Successful Russian diplomatic manoeuvring which is at odds with Israel’s national security.

  • A resurgent Iran following a diminished US military threat acting to undermine Israel.

  • A potentially radicalised opposition now that liberal US support is less likely.

Policy Options Available

Israel has no influence inside Syria, and any support given to the opposition would discredit it. As long as the policy of disengagement exists, this lack of influence will remain. It is important to consider the main options that Israel has, and outline the advantages or disadvantages of these.

  1. Proactive policy: taking the initiative and shaping a regime in Syria that is beneficial for Israel. This could be achieved through clandestine or indirect means such as military aid or weakening the regime’s support structures.

    1. This could be used to undermine Hezbollah’s support, anti-Israeli Lebanese elements, as well as other anti-Israel elements in the region and strengthen Israel’s security by removing Syria from the ‘Iranian axis’.

    2. However, if this policy is revealed, it could be counterproductive as it could be misinterpreted as a Zionist plot and ignite conflict against Israel, uniting actors in the civil war. Additionally, such a policy is unlikely to gain support within Israel or internationally. This is a high risk policy with uncertain consequences.

    3. This would be unfavourable in a democratic transition (as it would appear undemocratic), unsuccessful in the continuation of the civil war, and could go either way in the event of a military coup.

  1. Reactive policy: Israel can take preventative measures to defend itself against damage from the conflict. This could include preventing arms/sophisticated weapons smuggling that could later be used against Israel, deterring the Assad regime from involving Israel in the civil war, reinforcing defence in the Golan Heights, and keeping a watchful eye on Israeli interests in the civil war without proactively engaging.

    1. This reduces the risk of both inaction and direct interference. This would safeguard Israel’s current position, and allow Israel to continue to deter aggressive elements near the Israeli-Syrian border.

    2. Israel will not have direct influence on the Syrian Civil War, and will leave it open for possible unfavourable regimes.

    3. This would appear to be most favourable in the event of a democratic transition or the continuation of the civil war, and neutral in the event of a coup.

  1. Passive policy: Israel hedges its bets on the civil war and maintains neutrality, reacting only to direct or immediate threats.

    1. This is cost-effective policy, as it requires no action, mobilisation, or immediate risk.

    2. However, this would deny Israel on opportunity to exert influence on the region, and leaving this route open to potentially hostile actors such as extreme Islamist groups or Iran.

    3. This would be favourable in the result of a democratic transition, neutral if the civil war continues, and unfavourable if a military coup occurs.

Policy Recommendation

The Syrian crisis offers both opportunities and threats for Israel, but acting on these opportunities are high-risk and require proactive moves from Israel.

The proactive policy engenders high risk actions, potentially unfeasible moves, and in the event of a democratic transition could result in widespread backlash. The passive policy is also high risk, and would place Israel in an unfavourable position post-Assad, depending on the scenario.

The reactive policy seems on balance to be the best, because it is not high-risk, would not cause repercussions for Israel if made public, and creates satisfactory circumstances in the event of all three different scenarios.

Sources Consulted

Alpher, Yossi. (2012) “NOREF Policy Brief: Regional Implications of the conflict in Syria: a view from Israel” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre.

Potential for regional conflict ‘spillover’, unpredictable results of civil war warrant security cooperation with other regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia over mutual shared interests of peace and stability.

Dekel, Udi. (2012) “Whither Syria? Recommendations for Israeli Policy” INSS Insight No. 359.

Israel should assume that the current regime will not survive and thus should open up dialogue with favourable opposition elements to facilitate a responsible government as its neighbour.

Mikail, Barah. (2012). “Assad’s Fall: How Likely, How Desirable?” FRIDE Policy Brief No. 127.

Risks of an Assad fall, including “sectarian strife, a power vacuum … regional tensions”. Israel must have contingency plans for all of these.

Mikail, Barah. (2013). “Can the Syrian war be ended?” FRIDE Policy Brief No. 167.

Resilience of the Assad regime; implies that scenarios after the fall of Assad may be sometime in the future.

Rabinovich, Itamar. (2013a) “On Syria, 4 New Worries for Israel”, Times of Israel, available at htttp://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-syrian-twist-4-new-worries-for-israel/ [Accessed 10/01/2014]

Revised assessment of the Syrian civil war following the UN Security Council chemical weapons resolution.

Rabinovich, Itamar. (2013b) “The Changing of the Tide in the Syrian Civil War” INSS Insight No. 499.

A military solution is unlikely, and that Assad has proven to be resilient following the chemical weapons crisis. Useful analysis of opposition elements.

Rogers, Paul. (2013). “Syria: Deterioration or Compromise?” Oxford Research Group Monthly Global Security Briefing – June.

In current stalemate, Israeli intervention could discredit unfavourable elements if perceived as a Zionist threat.

Saban Center. (2012) “Israel’s View of the Syrian Crisis” Analysis Paper No. 28, available at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/11/israel%20syria%20rabinovich/rabinovich%20web%20final.pdf [Accessed 10/01/2014]

In-depth context on Israel-Syria, Israeli public discourse, and regional actors.


Saudi Arabia and the U.S. as an example of complex interdependence

Simply put, America is reliant on continued Saudi output of oil and Saudi Arabia is reliant on American dollars. For America, Saudi Arabia is a key regional ally; the Saudis rely on American security and weapons. Decisions made against this interdependence would affect the two countries in ‘costly ways’.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (Photo credit: Paul L McCord Jr)

Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state, but is bound in its support of an independent Palestinian state. It retains no diplomatic relations with Israel – America’s other principal ally in the region. It can do little more than make proposals on the matter – even being forced to drop its boycott of Israeli goods.
America is an important supporter of human rights and democracy, but criticisms of Saudi Arabia are rare. This is despite it not only being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world, but also intervening in other countries such as Bahrain to control protesters against a similarly authoritarian government.
Multiple channels connect the two countries but mostly through economic and security concerns. Saudi Arabia has, since 2000, spent over $100 million on lobbying groups in the US according to the FARA database. There are also numerous non-state actors such as the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council.
Issues have had varied importance, and though oil has been a dominant force in the relations, security concerns have often been briefly prioritised for both countries. Such examples include the current Syria crisis (where Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni population), the on-going ‘War on Terror’, and Saudi need for American arms and weapons. Worth mentioning too, is the historical presence of US troops within Saudi Arabia.


The Logic of Empire

Athenian:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians:

You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.

Athenian:

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.


Mapping Eastern Europe, a Postcolonial Narrative?

The EURASIA PROJECT , formally unveiled two years ago by Vladimir Putin, can be described as ‘essentialist’ in postcolonial terms. Essentialism is the practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. In a previous post I spoke about the alterity assigned to those in the post-Soviet space by its outsiders:

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe … is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Eurasianism as a contemporary foreign policy concept has been around since at least Gorbachev’s “New Thinking”, speaking as an alternative for those who see Russia as having a special place in world politics. As Russia is not imbued in a disadvantaging colonial power relationship, it was able to create a ‘grand narrative’ surrounding itself and the near abroad. A grand narrative, or ‘metanarrative’, claims to be a truth concerning the way the world works, and creates a story that explains and merges local or native narratives.

English: Ethnic map of the European part of th...

Ethnic map of the European part of the Russian Empire

Whilst Eurasia can be a simple geographic term, it can also imply a lot of political meanings and ‘truths’, referring to the historical and ‘legitimate’ influence over the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet sucessor. The term encompasses widely different ethnicities and cultural groups, from Karelians and Chukchis to Moldovans, Chechnyans, and Tatars. The unifying narrative, enforced through colonial education of the ‘Slav’, the ‘Soviet’, or ‘Eurasian’, has only a Greater Russia as a common denominator.

The resurgence of these narratives can reflect hidden political threats and the new capabilities of certain groups. The alterity (state of being different) given by the pro and anti West that divides all these different ethnicities and countries domestically, unites them as a whole with an identity crisis. Eurasianism gives the new Russia historical legitimacy in its quest for regional influence, and discursively unites key actors within the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, it discursively neglects the pro-Europe within its near abroad, nurturing instead a pro-Russian elite.


Chemical Weapons in Syria

So, there’s been recent reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria. This raised a few questions, and was seen as a ‘red line’ for intervention in the West. For this, I think it’s fair to add a few points of context and why this will probably make intervention less probable than it would seem to be. Also, I should say now that my stance is non-intervention in Syria, something you can see in my previous posts .

Most importantly, as soon as several politicians called chemical weapons a game changer, there were always going to be those on the rebels side who would want to stage a false flag attack to gain support. Analysts from the bottom-up predicted this (e.g. here ), something that actually comes out looking quite rational (especially when you consider the array of factions involved against Assad ).

First of all, countries such as the UK and the US need to recognise that the battle isn’t black and white; there is a tendency to idolise those fighting against enemies as freedom fighters, such as the Muhajideen against the Soviets, many of whom were later rebranded as ‘terrorists’.

In fact, the evidence points now that instead of one side using chemical weapons, and generally being the ‘bad guys’, both sides do. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he had evidence the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in April ( source ), and yesterday UN human rights investigators reported that rebels had used the nerve agent Sarin ( source ).

So, this also turns into another claim made of the rebels that was said to be categorically wrong by those in the media. Here’s a list someone else made of some of the claims so far, that were later proved right:

  1. Rebels armed with advanced conventional weaponry such as AT, mortars, AA, grad rockets.
  2. Foreign fighters present.
  3. Foreign countries are financing the war (Qatar, Saudi Arabia…)
  4. Foreign countries are assisting entry and providing training to rebels (Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia…)
  5. Syria is fighting terrorists. (Al Nusra, and other extremist groups)
  6. Rebels have used chemical weapons.

What this ends up looking at, is a painful and no-win war. Of course, this is only from an outsider’s perspective, but it seems that siding with either the rebels or Assad means siding with those incompatible with the norms and values of the West, and that sitting on the sidelines means we’re just going to ‘let people die’.


Poland & the Postcolonial

Poland has, for hundreds of years, been surrounded and conquered by its neighbours. Recent history up until the very late 20th century has been no better, with Soviet-imposed massacres and brutal repression. Colonialism has evidently been a great part of Polish history, being a land between great powers, yet there is a reluctance in postcolonial literature to include colonial presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet some have recognised Ireland as a postcolonial country, with Eastern Europe as an unknown:

only one European country has thus far been exempted from the binary ‘First World-Third World’ model now governing post-colonial studies. This is Ireland which is, as Seamus Deane remarks, ‘the only Western European country that has both an early and a late colonial experience’ […] Deane is careful to distinguish here between East and West; [which] remains terra incognita in recent theory. [Cavanagh 2003, 63-64].

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe (and Poland, which Cavanagh references), is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Colonialism, as well as cultural and geopolitical dominance, have played large roles in Eastern Europe. Numerous states have attempted (and at times succeeded in) exercising full or partial control over other countries, others have even occupied with settlers, and it is certainly not rare for there to be a system of economic exploitation. It is not that this has been confined to the history books either, Soviet presence being the greatest example, but also the aims of different groups during periods of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

‘Outside’ influences such as that of the Turks in South-Eastern Europe, or that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are underreported in postcolonial studies. German cultural dominance imposed in Poland, for example, still holds sway over local elections even (see below).

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish railway infrastructure.

Polish railway infrastructure.

However, this is not to say that Poland was always the oppressed. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was a force to be reckoned with, and whilst it didn’t quite have the same level of brute as other European powers it still made efforts to assimilate other cultures and civilisations. This is also not to say, that colonisation of Poland, and colonisation outside of Europe are in any way equal. The point of this post is to highlight how postcolonial studies can overlook colonial discourse and events purely because of current affairs.

To further confuse those who delve deeper, there are also efforts to rehabilitate Eastern Europe away from the “Other”. The Economist states that the term has “connotations of “poverty, marginalisation, and weirdness” which is for most states there, “anything but.”  Membership in Schengen, the EU, NATO, and the reemergence of Russia in world politics as an ally of the West all play to the narrative that Europe is no longer divided. A video that plays with the concept of Eastern Europe, and attempts to think up new terms,

Cavanagh , C., 2003, Postkolonialna Polska. Bia ł a plama na mapie współ czesnej teorii, “Teksty Drugie”, No. 64; 18-19. Quotations taken from other sites, which in turn quoted Cavanagh’s English version.

Vladimir Putin , having been recently named possibly the most powerful person on the planet by the American Foreign Policy magazine, could well have been a puzzling choice for some. However, for many FP buffs or Russia watchers, the reality was already known. In Russia, Putin can command a lot of support through many channels lacking in other, more powerful, countries. So too can he act without restraint from the EU, a strong constitution, or a coalition in government.

However, there were alternatives to choose from, and the choice is still certainly up for debate.

Christine Lagarde , the world’s loan shark, in the unusual position of being incredibly influential in many different places around the world. It is up to her and the IMF as to how influential she will be, as an intervention in Europe or elsewhere would mean big news.

The man behind China, Xi Jinping , could have a huge effect on the world if he decides to push ahead with meaningful reform. As with Lagarde, Jinping’s influence on 2013 is mostly up to him. China isn’t in an existential state, but  with the lowest annual GDP rate in 10 years and tempers steeply rising over what would perhaps previously be considered inane, reform might be just what is needed to keep China on track. Jinping made strong words already this year, but are they simply rhetoric?

The new leader, Jinping (L) and the old, Hu Jintao (R)

The new leader, Jinping (L) and the old, Hu Jintao (R)

Barack Obama is someone nobody can leave out of a ‘most powerful/influential’ list. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia group said “Even at a time when Washington is focused almost entirely on Washington, the elected leader of the world’s most powerful and influential country carries a lot of water.” Obama will try to keep out of anything too drastic for now, as domestic problems are key.

Around 20 years ago, Angela Merkel was an unknown player in German politics. However, in Helmut Kohl’s fourth and fifth cabinets, she would gain notoriety and influence. Being Kohl’s protégé, she has been solidly committed to the Eurozone as a simple step up from German reunification. However, her commitment is seen as overly harsh in certain countries and is having to play a delicate balance between domestic support, foreign distaste, and an unwillingness to compromise by certain country’s leaders in the same way that was done at the start of the crisis.

Merkel (L) and Kohl (R)

Merkel (L), and Kohl (R).

It must be said that none of the above have the same power that Putin does. True it is to say that some are at the head of stronger economies, militaries, and can hold much more influence across the world than Russia as a whole might. Nonetheless, none of them have such power concentrated in one representative.

Whilst the modern Russia is a democracy, and the President today has nowhere near the amount of freedom as the former Soviet Premier had, Putin has inherited a position that does not have to seek consensus in order to exert power. Andrew Rahr, research director of the German-Russian forum, had this to say of Putin:

It is not official propaganda that cultivates the image of Putin as a strong leader, at least not primarily. Following the shocks of the 1990s, Russians above all wanted social guarantees, a stable economy and a strong and independent foreign policy. Putin managed to deliver on these priorities.

Competence in Russian politics is undervalued by foreign media, and Putin has shown much competency. How does this make him the world’s most powerful player though? It doesn’t, at least on its own. High approval ratings, a strong and resurgent Russia, adept political manoeuvring, and consolidated political power and alliances all make Putin the prime candidate.

Unlike other Western politicians, Putin has a comfortable majority in the polls. Unlike the current status quo, Russia has yet much more potential to gain. Unlike leaders like Jinping, Putin has proved himself comfortable with pragmatic friendships and political alliances. Unlike those who lead the powerful countries in the West, the Russian president has historically had much more constitutional power and is not at the perils of Congress/Brussels.

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha

Putin, using the BRICS , has made it no secret his ideal of a new multipolar world order. Economic crisis striking the richest countries, and the comparative ease that the BRICS have shook it off, have furthered this goal somewhat. Last year, intervention in Syria was prevented, America was not pleased.

This year, it will take more than  vetoes for the new Russia to surge, but it is doable. The coming months will highlight a discussion on the urgent need of reform in the Federation, and how this affects its potential.