By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The devastating Israeli strikes against targets belonging to the Syrian regime on May 3 and May 5, 2013, gave a clear indication that Israel wants to be a key determinant of the course of events in Syria, and wants to impose the ‘rules of the game’ in a manner that suits its interests, or at least does not conflict with them.
Israel is monitoring the events in Syria with great concern. The Israeli media and think tanks are putting forward many analyses and forecasts with the help of intellectuals, politicians, military leaders, and various other experts, on Syria. Yet what are common to them all are the state of concern and confusion over the future of Syria, and the absence of one predictable track that can be dealt with. As some have put it, those who say they know what the endgame in Syria is are either prophets or charlatans. Since there are no prophets, then they are surely charlatans!
The views expressed by some Israeli leaders like President Shimon Peres and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, supporting the Syrians’ bid for freedom and the establishment of a democratic Syria, was just a public relations stunt meant for domestic consumption. Indeed, and as confirmed by Eyal Zisser, Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, “Most Israelis do not care about the grievances and the aspirations of their neighbors, democracy, justice, prosperity. They care about their own security. That’s the way of the average Israeli, and as a result, his government.”
For nearly forty years, the Israelis enjoyed calm borders with Syria. Today, there is near unanimous agreement in Israel that the Syria the Israelis knew in that period is gone forever.
Whatever the likely scenario may be, the risk of dealing with a heated Syrian front has increased dramatically. Nevertheless, the Israelis are reassured by the fact that as long as the Syrians are preoccupied with their internal conflict, Israel will remain untouched by any real risks in the foreseeable future.
The Israelis are content with the “self-destruction” going on in Syria, and the war there increasingly taking on a sectarian character. They want to remain in the shadows, as long as the course of events goes in the way they favor, and draws attention away from the conflict with Israel.
For this reason, Alex Fishman, military commentator in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote on 12/6/2013 an article titled “Let them kill themselves quietly,” and expressed his satisfaction that the Arab world has been burning for two years, and annihilating itself without outside interference. Then a few days later, Amir Rapaport, the military commentator in Maariv, wrote that the “Arabs forgot Israel,” and are now preoccupied with their internal conflicts.
Israeli interests are served by the course of events in Syria taking a certain direction to further the following goals:
1- The continuation of the destruction of Syria, its wealth, its economy, and its infrastructure, the impoverishment of its people, and setting the country back by decades.
2- Tearing the Syrian social fabric, and creating ‘walls of blood’ between the Syrian sects and ethnicities, whether Sunni, Alawite, Druze, Christian, Arab, or Kurdish, by virtue of the internal conflict taking on a sectarian-ethnic character. This would waste the energies and lives of many Syrians, and deny the country the chance to stand back on its feet.
3- The collapse of the Syrian army and the depletion of its capabilities, in a futile conflict fought among the Syrians themselves. The Syrian army would be the last conventional Arab army that can pose a threat to Israel, after the Egyptian army was pacified following the Camp David Accords of 1978, and after the disbandment of the Iraqi army in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
4- The establishment of a new liberal regime in Syria, which would be subordinate to US policy in the region, as part of the ‘moderate’ regimes that adopt the path of peaceful settlement with Israel.
5- The new Syrian regime must be strong enough to protect the border with Israel, but weak enough to be unable to overcome the socioeconomic consequences of the internal conflict. In other words, this regime must drown in the next twenty years in its internal problems, to be used only as a ‘fire fighter’ to quell domestic ‘blazes.’
6- Dragging Iran, Hizbullah, and the Shiites in the region to the internal war in Syria, and exhausting their capabilities there, both militarily and economically, in parallel with stoking a sectarian Sunni-Shiite war that only brings destruction to everyone, and only benefits Israel and its allies.
7- Preventing Islamists and anti-Israeli groups from taking power in Syria, and preventing advanced weaponry or chemical weapons from falling into the hands of what Israel and the United States (US) deem to be ‘extremist groups.’
8- If a regime acceptable to Israel were not to emerge, then Israel might prefer the establishment of Alawite, Sunni, Druze, and Kurdish statelets in Syria, which would lead to the partitioning of Syria into rival states.
Engineering Assad’s Fall
Israel is not in a hurry regarding the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Its previous stance was “better the devil that you know than the one that you don’t,” and hence, Israel did not favor changing the ‘pro-resistance’ regime in Syria if it cannot be certain about a new regime and how much it would be hostile to Israel. However, when the revolution in Syria imposed new facts on the ground, Israel and the US began dealing with the prospect of the regime’s fall more seriously.
It was clear that the US approach (and the Western/European approach it leads) as well as Israel’s, prefers dragging out the conflict in Syria as much as possible, in order to achieve the greatest degree of exhaustion for Syria, and its economic/military capabilities, as well as the greatest degree of social and sectarian disintegration for the Syrian people. Ultimately, this would create the best possible conditions to extort the political factions in Syria, and impose Western-Israeli conditions on them.
It is on this basis that one can understand the refusal of the US and its allies to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and to hold back the Syrian air force that continues to pound its opponents’ strongholds, killing thousands of Syrian civilians in the process. Similarly, this also explains the ban on arming the Syrian opposition, save for supplying them with enough weapons to prolong the conflict without any side being able to settle it, and increasing/decreasing the supply of arms according to developments on the field.
The above also helps explain why the US has turned a blind eye to the military assistance provided by Iran and Russia to the Syrian regime, supplying the latter with everything it needs to sustain its war, and even achieve some successes, in a manner that allows the Americans to extract more concessions from the Syrian opposition.
Thus, post-Assad arrangements preoccupy the Americans and their allies, more than the bloodshed and the suffering of the Syrian people. While there is a desire to see the Assad regime end, there is a stronger desire still for the collapse of said regime to take place in a manner favorable to US-Israeli interests.
Scenarios and Forecasts
Most Israeli estimates expect the Assad regime to fall eventually. Some estimates hold that Assad may step down while the state remains intact, paving the way for a weak regime where non-homogeneous and unstable alliances govern, comprising Islamists and secularists in sharp dispute, and who are preoccupied with internal issues and unable to address the conflict with Israel.
There are other estimates that the opposition may achieve partial victory by seizing Damascus, while the former regime survives in Alawi-majority areas (northwestern Syria). Practically, this means the internal conflict would continue indefinitely, while Iran would intervene to back the remnants of the regime, and ensure its continued presence and influence in the region.
Another scenario involves the emergence of statelets along sectarian and ethnic lines, which is desirable to Israel. However, this is an uncertain scenario, as the peoples of the region usually overcome the risks of partition, and return to unity even after years of infighting.
In addition, it is possible that Syria may descend into a Somali-like state, with warlords mushrooming everywhere. However, Israel, as much as it would be pleased by this state of fragmentation and disintegration in Syria, will feel concerned if chaos were to spread in the region, including Lebanon and Jordan, as this would make it more likely that the borders between these countries and Israel would flare up. Indeed, it is important for Israel that chaos resulting from the partitioning or ‘Somalization’ of Syria does not lead to encouraging resistance operations against Israel through now-insecure borders.
One other scenario would see the Syrians succeeding in establishing a cohesive state with a patriotic, pan-Arab, and pan-Islamic spirit, which would go on to recover and restore its role, including in the conflict with Israel. This is a scenario that Israel fears and wants to avert.
Israeli Measures on the Ground
Israel rushed to take a range of measures on the ground to safeguard its security, and be able to deal effectively with the course of events in Syria:
1- Building a high-tech electrified fence over 70 km on the border with Syria. The project is a ‘smart’ fence equipped with advanced surveillance technology to monitor any unusual movement. The fence will be completed in June 2013.
2- Continuing Israeli preparations for any possible conflict with Syria, including training and drills that also cover the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria. But it may be worth pointing out that the Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz believes that the prospect for a Syrian chemical weapons attack is very small. Furthermore, there are Israeli solutions, both defensive and offensive, to counter this possibility.
3- Executing surveillance and reconnaissance operations (in coordination with the US) to monitor whether Syrian advanced and chemical weapons were taken out of storage in which case to carry out preemptive strikes against them.
4- Studying the possibility of establishing a buffer zone in the Golan Heights – Syria. This has been taken up as a serious prospect by Israeli decision-makers, according to Israel’s Channel One on 29/3/2013, quoting high-level political and security sources.
5- Stepping up Israeli intelligence activity inside Syria.
6- Coordination with Jordan: Israeli newspapers (including Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz), as quoted by Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 27/12/2012 and 23/4/2013, reported on several meetings held between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jordanian monarch with a view to coordinate stances on Syria.
7- Mending relations with Turkey, where Netanyahu (after refusing to do so for long) offered a formal apology to Turkey for the death of Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara during the Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza, in order to improve coordination with Turkey over the situation in Syria, according to Netanyahu himself (aljazeera.net, 24/3/2013).
Israel Wants… and the People Want
Not everything Israel wants, or works for with its ally the US, Israel gets. This also applies to Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others. To be sure, the essence of the events in Syria is the Syrian people themselves, something that many actors are ignoring and dealing with the Syrian people as though they do not exist.
The disregard for the patriotism and Islamic spirit of the Syrian people, and its right to self-determination, has led many foreign actors (including Israel) to fall into miscalculations. The same goes for those who are attempting to oversimplify the revolution or distort it by claiming it to be a foreign plot, or the work of terror groups.
The transitional nature of any revolutionary situation in any country may create fragmentation or weaken the central government and its institutions, and some may fuel sectarian and ethnic fears and fanaticism. However, this does not mean that the Syrian people will ultimately be unable to deal with such challenges.
Without a doubt, Syria faces enormous challenges. But the Syrian people are able to come up with a civilized model that will accommodate all communities in Syria, and head off US-Israeli intervention in their affairs and their future.
Nevertheless, it is the duty of the Syrian leaders to live up to the aspirations and sacrifices of the Syrian people. Only then will Israel and its allies be unable to stand against the will of the Syrian people.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 4/7/2013