by Mitchell Plitnick
All eyes are on US President Barack Obama as he contemplates how to deal with the fact that the Syrian government might have crossed a red line he never should have drawn. The Israelis, even while abstaining from pressuring Obama to act in Syria, meanwhile know their own decisions are no less troublesome.
Obama dug himself a hole when he declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a casus belli. Now that it appears that Sarin gas was used in Syria (although such use is certainly not as destructive as some of the “conventional” bombardment that has been employed), Obama is in a quandary. There is no more or less of a reason to significantly increase the US’ involvement in Syria than there was before, but the forces that have been calling for intervention have an enormous new chip to play.
This might be comforting to Israel, because they have to be very concerned about what is happening in Syria right now, and that concern is not based on whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas. The Syria situation is everything the issue with Iran is not.
Iran represents a potential threat to Israel’s position as a nuclear hegemon and to the whole US-Israel-Saudi matrix of power in the region. But despite the hysteria, those in charge in Israel know very well that Iran has not yet made the decision to construct a nuclear weapon and that, even if they got one, the situation would be one of a nuclear standoff, not an imminent Iranian attack on Israel.
Public rhetoric reflects something different, but no one in the halls of the Israeli Knesset or in Washington thinks Iran will simply decide to push the nuclear button. That reality is precisely why it was so important for AIPAC and other anti-Iran forces to eliminate a containment strategy early on; they knew it was by far the most sensible policy in terms of avoiding war, but would weaken the regional position of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf compatriots.
Syria is, from the Israeli point of view, a completely different matter. The chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are surely a real concern, but the issue is much wider than that.
While Israelis view Assad as an enemy, they’re well aware that their border with Syria has been basically quiet for forty years. Assad kept things stable while supporting Hezbollah’s activities in Southern Lebanon. Now that situation will likely drastically change.
It remains possible that Assad will prevail, but even if he does, the status quo ante is lost forever. It is very difficult to predict what an Assad regime will look like if he does win. One thing we know is that after all the anti-Assad rhetoric and repeated calls for him to step down, the international community will not be able to simply accept his victory. So Syria will be isolated, at least for a while, even from the rest of the Arab League. How does that affect Syria’s behavior vis-a-vis Israel, Hezbollah, Jordan, Turkey and Iran? Much will depend on the circumstances of any Assad victory, but in any case, it’s currently unpredictable.
The far more likely scenario, though, is that Assad will eventually be toppled and the various opposition groups will begin vying for power. That contest will undoubtedly prolong the extreme violence in Syria, but it will also be a battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. That could well mean engaging Israel directly or by increasing support for Hezbollah. Do we really expect that Israel will just sit back and wait to see what will happen?
The fighting groups in Syria are certainly not all Salafist, al-Qaeda-type groups. But that does describe a number of them, and others are highly sectarian. Various groups are being backed by competing outside powers, including Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, with the US and its allies being a peripheral player even among those who are involving themselves from a distance. Iran and Hezbollah have also been working to support groups friendly to them so that they will continue to have an influential presence in the event Assad falls.
Now things get even more complicated. Israel had wisely avoided pushing the US toward intervention, until they announced their finding of the use of chemical weapons, which was likely a way to try to get the US to carry out or go along with an Israeli operation specifically targeting such weapons. Israel is really not anxious to see the US get more involved in Syria, another striking contrast with the Iran situation. It may turn out that US involvement is the best of a host of unpalatable options, but Israel is well aware that escalation in Syria is not in its interest.
The problem is that Hezbollah yesterday raised the possibility of their own direct intervention. A long-term Hezbollah presence in Syria is not likely something that Israel will sit still for. Tensions are flaring on the Israel-Lebanese border, not to mention the ongoing pressure cooker within Lebanon itself, which has been turned up much higher because of the Syrian civil war.
It is impossible to conceive of Israel sitting by quietly if Hezbollah becomes an active participant in Syria. That impossibility stems from the concern Israel has held from the day the armed conflict began, namely that Hezbollah would have access to Syrian weapons, chemical and conventional. Moreover, Israel would be quite concerned that Hezbollah would then have an established fighting presence on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
At this stage, there is no reason to believe that Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s implication that direct intervention in Syria is on the table is anything more than bluster. Still, it cannot be dismissed. With each day, the likelihood of Assad holding on to power becomes dimmer and dimmer, and just from the sheer numbers, the greatest possibility by far is that a subsequent Syrian regime, or even a conglomeration of mini-states, is not going to be friendly to the Shi’ite militia/party. That’s why Iran continues to back Assad, and Hezbollah has a compelling reason to involve itself more directly in Syria: to bolster the minority forces that might be aligned with them in a post-Assad Syria.
With or without US involvement, these concerns are going to be present for Israel. The Israelis are not totally blind to the ramifications of taking action on their own, of course. But even though rumors of a recent Israeli strike on a chemical weapons depot in Syria appear unfounded, the dual concerns of chemical weapons falling into hands more likely to use them against Israel than Assad, and of a new regime with Salafist or similar tendencies taking power in Syria, are going to compel dramatic Israeli action sooner or later.
Though the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet for decades, Israel is mindful of the role the pre-Assad Syrian state played in the run-up to the 1967 war. The early Ba’athist regime was more aggressive, consistently engaging Israel and causing then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to take many of the steps that eventually led to Israel launching the war, steps that he vainly hoped would mollify Syria and convince them to let Nasser handle the confrontation with Israel.
The Assad regime, both father and son, avoided such actions. A new Syrian regime may well embrace them, and given the widespread changes in the region, that prospect is sure to make Israel extremely anxious. Of course, an agreement with the Palestinians would go a long way toward blunting that threat, but that’s nothing but a pipe dream at this point.
Ultimately, the fact that the Israelis believe they have real and immediate reasons to act in Syria (unlike with Iran) — even if they’re reluctant to do so — might be the factor that eventually pushes the US and/or Europe to intervene. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make intervention any wiser or more likely to bring about positive results.