Devil You Know?

05.23.13

What Israel Really Thinks About Syria

Is the devil you know better than the one you don’t?

For Israel, there's no clear answer. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected this week a report that Israel prefers President Bashar al-Assad over Islamic rebels as the ruler of Syria, this has not always been the case.

For the first year of the civil war, some Israeli defense officials privately claimed that Israel would be better off with Assad. The viewpoint stemmed from a tactical assessment of Israel’s borders and the fact that the Syrian front had been its quietest, even more than the so-called peaceful borders with Jordan and Egypt. Yes, Israel fought a major war with Syria in 1973, but since then, the line of demarcation had been peaceful.

These officials also warned that the alternative to Assad would be a splintered country that could turn into Libya, or, even worse, into something of a Somalia.

Another reason for preferring Assad in those initial months of the uprising was that for intelligence services, it is easier to predict what a country will do by tracking a single clear hierarchical leadership. If that leadership falls and the country descends into chaos, tracking one’s enemy and predicting what they will do becomes extremely complex.

But as the death toll climbed and rebel forces conquered larger parts of the country, Israeli intelligence analysts understood that even if they might prefer the Alawite despot, the chances he would survive were slim. Anyhow, they realized, Assad had also lost his legitimacy as a ruler.

Even then, Israel’s assessments were grossly inaccurate. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister until two months ago, predicted in June 2011 that Assad would fall by the end of that year. When that turned out to be wrong, Barak again tried to predict what would happen, saying in February 2012 that Assad would fall “within weeks”.

What was behind Barak’s assessments remains a mystery and ultimately could have simply been a case of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the difficulty in predicting the course of events in Syria.

For Israel, the scenarios vary and most intelligent analysts are wary of making public predictions. On the one hand, it is possible Assad’s forces will retake lost parts of the country. A key ongoing battle where they are gaining momentum is in Al-Qusair, near Homs, the outcome of which could impact the rest of the civil war.

On the other hand, there is always the possibility that someone on the inside will get to Assad, similar to the way his brother-in-law and minister of defense were assassinated last July. This would likely be a fatal blow to the Alawite-run regime.

Alternatively—and believed to be the more likely scenario—Syria will eventually splinter and different factions will take control of different territories. Assad and the Alawites will control the coastal areas like Tartus, home to Russia’s naval base; The Druze will rule the South, the Kurds the north and the Sunnis, the majority of the country.

The problem with this is that a country ruled by non-state actors—like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip—would be more difficult to deter from attacking as well as in defeating if a wider conflict erupts. Iin contrast, a state actor has clear sources of power like national infrastructure and military bases, which, if destroyed, could constitute decisive defeat.

Ultimately, whether it is Assad or the rebels, Israel would prefer a scenario under which there is a clear ruler of the entire country, even one which is a declared enemy of the Jewish state, but which will at least be able to take responsibility for the military and its strategic assets—chemical weapons and advanced missile systems.

In the more immediate term, when Israel looks at Syria over the next few months and specifically at the Syrian side of the Golan, it sees a growing tactical threat.

An example of this was provided early Tuesday morning when shots were fired at an IDF border patrol. These skirmishes are expected to escalate and could eventually include rocket attacks into nearby Israeli towns. For these reasons, the IDF has already bolstered its forces along the line of demarcation and is erecting new barriers and early-warning systems.  

The second challenge Israel faces in Syria stems from the possible proliferation of chemical weapons—either to Hezbollah or into rebel hands—as well as the transfer of advanced weaponry, like ballistic and surface-to-air missiles, to terrorist organizations.

Three known airstrikes have been recorded in recent months against such transfers and Netanyahu has threatened more if additional ones are attempted. A future airstrike could easily lead to a wider conflict if Assad retaliates.

On the upside, though, the civil war is having one positive effect on the region by weakening the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance, or what Israeli military intelligence refers to as the “Shia Crescent." Iran’s ability to arm Hezbollah has, for example, been significantly impaired.

Until a few years ago, Israel spoke about returning to the Golan Heights to achieve this objective. Now, that is completely off the table.

Just as important, though, is how Teheran must be feeling as it finds itself increasingly isolated in a region where its last real ally is fighting for his survival. If and how this will impact Iranian decisions on its nuclear program remains to be seen.

So who will Israel be better off with in Syria? Ultimately, it doesn’t really make a difference since the answer will be delivered on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, not in the corridors of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.