NOTE: This policy briefing paper is focused on Israeli interests and potential policy routes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Israel will not have direct influence on the Syrian Civil War, and will leave it open for possible unfavourable regimes.
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.
Passive policy: Israel hedges its bets on the civil war and maintains neutrality, reacting only to direct or immediate threats.
This is cost-effective policy, as it requires no action, mobilisation, or immediate risk.
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.
This would be favourable in the result of a democratic transition, neutral if the civil war continues, and unfavourable if a military coup occurs.
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.
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.
Posted: October 7, 2012
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