Will Israel Accept Assad’s Syria?

Increasingly, it appears as though Israel is willing to accept Assad’s reconsolidation of power in Syria – so long as Iranian troops and proxies are kept a sufficient distance from Israel’s borders. 

In recent weeks, Israel attacked a number of Syrian and allegedly Iranian weapons caches, while watching warily as Syrian troops, along with Hezbullah support, and later, the Russians attacked a series of rebel-held cities in the South of Syria, some perilously close to Israeli borders. Syrian forces have also marched up to the border with Jordan, attacking the rebels. Having lost the backing of the United States, the rebels have been giving up to Assad’s army in large numbers while the army has been amassing US-made weapons once supplied to the rebels.

Approximately 60, 000 Syrian civilians amassed at Israeli border claiming that it is the safest area to be at the moment and requesting Israeli protections. Israel would not take in the group of people, however, both the government and the private citizens provided generous humanitarian aid and messages of goodwill. Additionally, a number of children and other wounded were taken into Israel for medical treatment, a policy that has been ongoing in Israel for years, to be returned to their families after treatment. Meanwhile, chaos continues to reign inside Syria, as Christians, Yazidis, and others find themselves endangered by the incursion of Turkey, on the one hand, assorted terrorist organizations, on the other, and the uncertain future under Assad, now armed with chemical weapons and not afraid to use them. Russia has been willing to mediate, but largely to its own benefit, and because of its need for Iran’s military support, has been unwilling to put pressure on Iranian militias to withdraw from Syria despite numerous such requests by Israel. In the upcoming summit between Russia’s President Putin and President Trump, it is expected that the United States will once again bring up that issue – but it is doubtful that Moscow will comply.

Tensions continue between the Kurds who are now largely concentrated in Rojava area and some of the Arab tribes, with mutual accusations of abuse proliferating. Afrin, unmoored by Turkish takeover, is now a dangerous no man’s land, which has created additional displacement of people, and gave jihadists and other threats more space to embed themselves. A congressional delegation, after visiting Manbij, a point of contention among several key players in this chaotic web of relationships and conflicts, urged the United States to remain as a guarantor of minimal security in Syria; however, President Trump is looking to withdraw from as much of Syria as quickly as practicable. The rebels and Kurds have been left disillusioned by the lack of forward-looking US strategy; the rebels in the South feel disappointed and abandoned by Israel, which, they were hoping, would provide critical aid and support in displacing Assad’s forces and countering Iran’s growing influence.

Despite the optics, however, Israel’s strategy towards Syria has been consistent since the beginning. Israel, while always considering Assad a threat, prioritized the security of its own citizens and its borders, making deals with Jabhat an-Nusra and other groups to avoid having to engage in protracted combat, and retaliating indiscriminately as a way of sending a message whenever Assad or jihadists or Hezbullah or anyone else breached its security through shelling, drones, or other means. Israel has also backed moderate Sunni rebels, but there was never an explicit promise that Israeli’s own defense forces would be actively engaged in combat unless its security was directly impacted by it.

The decision not to back the rebels in a more active way was spearheaded by a pragmatic, if somewhat self-fulfilling calculus: Assad has momentum on his side; he is backed by Russia and Iran,  the United States is clearly not willing to intervene, except with occasional retaliatory attacks to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons… if Israel gets involved it will be largely on her own, while also facing threats on several other fronts.  Indeed, getting bogged down in Syria is unaffordable, from the perspective of Israel’s security establishment. Could a more active involvement have made a difference earlier, though? The general sense from the Israeli government appeared to avoid trouble and to let someone else handle Syria. Israel had consciously minimized and limited its role in Syria – and perhaps now is paying the price for it.

Long before Turkey had gotten actively involved in Syria, and long before Assad had regained his power enough to become a dominant force in his own country, there was a window of opportunity to actively unite and back Sunni rebels with a potential to significantly weaken, if not outright overthrow the regime. However,  the Obama administration chose not to get involved as it was pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran; Israel went along with Russia’s strategy of a compromise with Assad that would have liberated the country from WMDs, and no one, in particular, was looking forward to spending a significant time “stuck” in Syria and having to deal with the aftermath of Assad’s fall. There was no clear leadership movement away from Assad; there was no plan for the reconstruction of the country; there was no clear financial backing or commitment to stabilization from the Gulf States; there was no effective proposal for reconstruction that would have avoided US policy mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Assad was ultimately able to prevail because along with Iran, and Russia, he had a clear vision of the country’s future and what he wanted to see happen. And he was willing to compromise with minorities and even grant them some level of autonomy just to remain in power. Earlier predictions of Assad’s inevitable fall and Syria’s division into small fiefdoms controlled by various factions may not materialize. On the contrary, all indicia point to an opposite conclusion. For a while, at least, Syria will remain unified largely under Assad’s aegis, backed by Syria and Iran. Erdogan will continue making inroads, but his movements will temporarily be slowed down by the inevitability of having to deal with Turkey’s internal issues, as well as Assad’s growing confidence in his own strength and infallibility. In general, the civil war in Syria aimed to address particular grievances has backfired tremendously, and mostly for the rebels themselves. The war has led to a massive refugee crisis which threatened to destabilize Europe and undermined the already struggling economies of Jordan and Turkey. It further has led to large-scale trauma throughout the region, created a number of significant security threats, led to the further disintegration of the civil societies, and ultimately strengthen the Iranian regime, which found an easy pathway into Syria. It also emboldened Turkey.

The war also showed that despite the lethal rhetoric, Israel was never Tehran’s first priority; rather, it was an annoying side issue that threatened their plans in Syria and elsewhere. To the extent that Iranians continued testing Israel’s boundaries, it showed malevolent intent on their part, but it was also clear that Iran wanted to amass strength and following through conquest and regional destabilization before ever facing Israel with its quantifiably superior military strength. At the end of the day, however, Iran, weakened by internal protests and the withdrawal of the European companies in light of US threats to impose secondary sanctions on anyone who continues to do business with the regime, decided that it is best if  Israel is otherwise occupied elsewhere so they could continue to pursue their strategy in the Levant.

Indeed, Iran monetized Hamas’ prowess to cause problems on Israel’s southern border to create a massive distraction from its ongoing activities in Syria.  Jared Kushner’s shuttle diplomacy over the mysterious peace plan and investments in Gaza only played into Tehran’s hands. The lack of strategy in dealing with Hamas, and the inordinate amount of attention in responding to the usual propaganda and negative headlines accusing Israel of massacring Hamas operatives masquerading as civilians took their toll; there was little room left for developing a strategic response for threats in the North – only occasional air strikes which do some damage, but which have allowed Iranian and pro-Iranian forces to remain intact. A regime, too, has not suffered much except in the losses of weapons, recouped by the arms given up by the rebels. Indeed, Iran has come out as a big winner from this debacle, getting to retain its proxy Assad in power, building up the land corridor to Syria, despite some sacrifices of Hezbullah and its other troops, and overall achieving the destabilizing effect in the region. Its notoriety has not won Iran too many close friends in the region; it has had to resort to the extortion even of allies such as Qatar, to be able to embed its militias deep inside Syria.

Furthermore, Assad, although surviving and thriving despite nearly seven years of strife, has been weakened and diminished by the fighting; the security threats persist, and at least some of the more radical jihadist groups persist for the foreseeable future. However, that state of being is sufficient for Iran’s purposes. So long as no one is seriously challenging Tehran’s influence in Syria, a number of jihadist groups are even helpful to Iran by distracting its enemies.  In the past, Russia has helped Iran by attacking US-backed rebels while largely ignoring ISIS, although Russia’s pretext for its presence in Syria was allegedly to combat ISIS. That Israel, despite seeing Iran in Syria as a viable threat, dares not do more than attack its warehouses or troops when they get too close to the border area, but gives pro-Iran militias a pass, is less of a comment on Israel’s morality and more of an observation about the state of the disarray of the Western allies.

Indeed, despite spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the future of Gaza and the Middle East peace, as though settling the long-simmering dispute with the Palestinians is a top priority when Iran is at the gate of multiple allies, the United States has little to offer in terms of combating Iran’s presence outside its borders. Its attempts to squeeze Iran financially through reimposition of sanctions against Tehran and its various proxies may be helpful in squeezing the regime and fueling additional protests; however, up until this point, none of these developments have sent Tehran into a paroxysm of panic. On the contrary, the regime appears to do the minimal to quell the riots across the country – possibly because the opposition is still sufficiently disunited and disarmed that it does not present a serious threat to the regime.

Indeed, Syria may be a lesson in the abject failure of the good guys for Iran; goodwill, dissatisfaction with the notorious regime and the economy, and even moral backing of the West have proved insufficient to secure Sunni victory in Syria.  The United States and others never managed to unify the opposition, and to separate “their” rebels from the jihadis; they failed to identify and cultivate opposition (as did the rebels themselves), they failed to provide sufficient backing to anyone group at any particular moment; they were swayed by other geopolitical concerns (i.e Turkey’s demands, and Russia’s “helpful” suggestions), they never developed a transition plan, nor were ever ready to commit to securing the very people they claimed to be backing, and failed to intercede against Iranians and Turks even while present on the ground. What makes Syria’s situation particularly curious is that it has engaged in particularly heinous activities: first – by utilizing chemical attacks against civilians, second, by hosting North Korea quite openly, and perhaps, serving as experimental ground for North Korea’s ambitions, and third, by massacring so many people that even the Europeans withdrew their diplomatic support of the regime. In other words, Assad somehow made himself appear even less legitimate than the regime in Tehran – and yet survived, and may yet regain diplomatic and political support from the very people who only recently cheered for his downfall.

Israel likely has important assets in both Iran and Syria; and has strategically reached out to civilians and opposition in both countries. However, it is unlikely that it will do significantly more than that in terms of openly confronting either regime unless its security is immediately threatened. Instead, Israel has focused on generating goodwill by focusing on the distribution of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations (as it did with Yazidis in Iraq, with Mexico, Guatemala, Nepal, and other countries after natural disasters, and to Syrian refugees in Lesbos), going as far as taking people in for medical treatment, but never as far as to directly intervene in conflicts that are not aimed at Israel itself.  It has potentially more room for engagement with both Syrians and Iranians, in terms of skill training and civil society building. It can provide valuable help with famines, droughts, and earthquakes – should the regimes choose to accept it. It can even provide some limited clandestine aid. However, Israel is a small country and cannot be expected alone to take on dictators even if they are a potential future threat right next door. Even the conflicts directly involving Israel proved to be physically, economically, politically, and socially costly.  Having to fight numerous battles on several fronts without a clear strategy would be Jerusalem’s downfall.

That, however, does not excuse the United States, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf allies, and Europeans from learning from past mistakes and planning for a better future. One potential disastrous scenario in Iran, for instance, is a weak disunited opposition doing just enough to cause a chaotic revolution inside the country, triggering another refugee crisis, without quite getting it right and resulting in a strengthened regime more dedicated to tyranny and suppression than ever before. Likewise, the United States and others should be planning for widespread circumvention of sanctions due to disunity in the ranks of the allies. Though many companies will voluntarily withdraw from Iran just as they voluntarily withdrew from Syria, the regimes now enjoy the support of other growing rogue actors, and furthermore, have been able to reach and to destabilize weaker states all over the world, potentially benefiting from their resources, while causing additional security problems for the allies.

In Syria, the story does not end with the wrapping up of the civil war. For Iran and Turkey, it may just be the beginning. Erdogan will wait out his turn until the United States is sufficiently distracted by North Korea or Iran or some combination of both, they will continue pushing forward, perhaps in a temporary alliance with Iran, perhaps at odds with Tehran, until he becomes a presence just as dangerous and influential as Iran and its proxies. If Israel does not start working on limiting Turkish influence in Jerusalem, Gaza, and even Judea and Samaria, it will soon be facing yet another front on top of Hamas,  Hizbullah, Salafi jihadists, Iran, and Assad (not to mention Houthis threatening Israeli vessels in Bab Al Mandeb vicinity).  Allowing Assad’s Syria right next door, despite an illusion of stability, is not a permanent solution to Israel’s security concerns, but rather, a conduit for Iran’s growing success and a start of far greater problems. Although Israel may not wish to take on strongmen without preparation or support, it should be working closely with the United States and regional allies, including non-State minorities, to develop a plan not only to slow down the spread of Iran and its backed militias but to reverse this course altogether.

by Irina Tsukerman