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.


Think local – Syria is not a conventional war

There are two things you’ll have noticed if you’ve been keeping an eye on Syria since things heated up there. The first is that the media likes to think of it as something big, part of a greater global movement (i.e. the Arab Spring, democrats meet despot), or a grand warfare of great power scale – a confrontation between East and West. The second is that the war is largely a stalemate. The two are related in some ways.

If you look at a map of ethnicities/sects (the two are often interchangeable in the region), you’ll notice something interesting. If you don’t, then look at a map showing who controls what areas. Alawite, Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, are the big things to remember in Syria. Syria is defined by sectarianism.

Demographics in Syria

Demographics in Syria

Rebel Activity in Syria

Rebel Activity in Syria

The Neighbourhood Watch

This is where it becomes interesting, because the lines have barely changed for the last two years. Normally in a war, one side starts winning and, taking the offensive, slowly gains more ground. In Syria, though, most of the rebels are winners only in home ground. Tanks come into their street and they pull together as a community and blow them up, give them an away match and they suddenly shuffle back to their houses.

Of course there are exceptions, and this is what will decide the war. Foreign contingents have no local loyalties, Jabhat al Nusra for the rebels and Hezbollah for the Sunnis are game changers.

Al Nusra may only have a few thousand soldiers, but a lot of them are committed jihadis, and the fact that the Free Syrian Army group hasn’t disowned them to get more support from the West, shows how effective they’ve been so far – at least for me.

Hezbollah sent over battle-hardened light infantry to show the regime that it would, in Nasralla’s words, “not let it fall”. One of the biggest events in the war so far, Qusayr, was mainly down to them. However, Hezbollah is cautious, and the soldiers won’t fight for death like al Nusra.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Syria.


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’.


Comments & Curios V

Who did you rape in the war, daddy? (a question for veterans that needs answering)

A well-written article about the ‘Other’ in warfare, and how easy it is to glorify war. The title is not in reference to a child asking their parent the question, but related to a story heard from a Vietnamese grandmother who was raped by a GI with his rifle – that the GI (if he survived) is unlikely to have told anyone of the experience, much less their own children.

Six steps to fix a broken Mali

the French-led military intervention in Mali has at least brought the country back from the brink of disaster, and opened up a space in which Malians can finally begin to chart a way forward for their nation. If I were advising the people who hold Mali’s fate in their hands — not only Mali’s interim president, but members of influential donor governments in North America and Europe — here’s what I’d recommend …

Welcome to Palestine: What’s Your Faith?

Maysoon Zayid explains what he would show Obama on his visit to Palestine, and why.


Iran, America, and Strict Dominance

Iranian President Ahmadinejad speaking in Natanz. Whilst nuclear enrichment isn’t nuclear weaponry, would the latter be really that bad?

If the recent intervention in Libya taught dictators and those in the ‘axis of evil’ anything, then it would be that the only guarantor of state sovereignty is nuclear weapons.

The current debate around Iranian nuclear capability is based on whether or not Iran will build nuclear weapons.

However, the debate should be on whether or not Iran will use them. It doesn’t seem unlikely that Iran could produce nuclear weapons, not to forget that the Soviet Union produced such weapons out of nowhere with no domestic supply of uranium/plutonium.

Nuclear weapons preserved a delicate balance of power for nearly 50 years during the Cold War, avoiding another catastrophic with the deterrent threat of mutually-assured-destruction. The world’s two largest superpowers faced each other off in Europe, with the Berlin wall.

Of course, this will not be good news for the greater powers – from the United States and China to Russia; Iranian nuclear weapons will mean a new competitor. However, for global security, Iran could tip the balance in the Middle East to reach an arguably less violent stalemate.

A map of American bases near Iran.

Counterproductive Measures

In the US, there is a growing anger against Iran – arguably manufactured consent for the war. This prompts questions as to what America might actually do, to which there are several answers.

The first one would be to cripple Iran’s economy through sanctions, blockades, and import bans. This will have the added effect of a possible overthrow of the regime (along with a reasonable amount of Iranian deaths through economic woes).

Another option is to stage a full on attack, Iraq style. This would drag America down, but gives them the ability to destroy all nuclear infrastructure and leave the threat of invasion open to any future Iranian leaders wishing to delve into nuclear capability.

Carpet bombing and ‘gunboat’ diplomacy. This will produce exactly the opposite of what would be intended, Iran becoming a nuclear power (in order to fend off America).

A Different Approach?

Ignoring everything said prior, what if Iran really does give in to all of America’s demands? Well, in my opinion that would be a failure – because a one-sided deal will only exacerbate tensions and certainly wouldn’t last very long.

Stephen Walt sees two paths to an Iranian nuclear resolution, the first being:

The one we are currently on: The United States and its allies keep ratcheting up economic sanctions until the Iranian economy collapses, accompanied by a fair amount of human suffering and untold deaths due to economic hardship. At that point, the clerical regime either says “uncle” or gets overthrown. In either case, whoever is in charge in Iran subsequently agrees to abandon all nuclear enrichment, get rid of all their current stockpile of enriched uranium, and dismantle all their centrifuges, with compliance to be verified by the United States and the IAEA.

This worked on Qaddafi nearly a decade back, with sanctions and economic pressure making non-proliferation seem much more attractive. However, it is of no doubt that the Iranian government sees a link to the overthrow of Qaddafi and the protection not given by a nuclear arsenal which means that this approach is much less likely to work. So, Walt’s second approach is the pure military option:

The United States attacks Iran and destroys as much of its nuclear infrastructure as it can find. We also manage to convince Iran that we’ll keep coming back to repeat the job if they try to rebuild. In response, the clerical regime ignores the popular outrage that our attack would provoke and agrees to remain a non-nuclear power in perpetuity.

Both of these approaches could work, and may even have done so before, but what is the virtue of a one-sided deal that might be popular only in the US if it’s completely unsustainable?

In either of these approaches, the Middle East is going to have to deal with a whole new load of rightfully naffed-off Iranians. The majority of Iranians support nuclear enrichment – from opposition leaders and the public at large to the current government; if a deal is struck under any of the approaches Walt sees then (in his own words) the “concession will have been screwed out of them.”

What could end up resulting with this, is that the hardliners on both camps get what they want – the Iranians getting a bomb and the Americans getting full-scale military intervention.

To see this, all you have to do is empathise with the Iranians in this hypothetical scenario and compare yourself to other countries of the world. Why do countries like Israel (which is vehemently against the state of Iran), Pakistan, and India get nuclear weapons? If the foundation of international law is sovereignty and self-defence why aren’t they allowed nuclear weapons, let alone nuclear power? This is not withstanding Japan’s large reserves of plutonium, and the fact that they are always never more than a few months away from a new bomb and a new president.

Empathising with the Americans too, in this scenario, would help you understand the climate for war. If Iran gained a nuclear weapon after some sort of coercion, then it would predictably be seen as a step to retribution.  It would not be unreasonable for a senior American official to quote the fictional West Wing POTUS, and say that they will “blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder” for even thinking of threatening America.

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Comments & Curios III

The American NGO, operating in North Korea

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Iran files a lawsuit against Russia

Dmitry Gorenburg warns that this might backfire, but others speculate that this might be an unavoidable consequence of Russia seeing more profit by selling to countries aligned to Israel and America – who would oppose any business with Iran.

Protestants now no longer the majority in N. Ireland

This might give some context to the Protestants who feel that the Catholics are gaining more control, despite the DUP currently leading Stormont.

The proportion of Protestants in Northern Ireland has fallen below 50 percent for the first time, census figures showed on Tuesday, raising the prospect that the growing numbers of Catholics could upset a fragile political balance.