Compared to Syria’s other neighbors, Israel has been the least affected by the
storm raging to its north.
The fighting between regime and opposition
forces can be seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, but the border
itself is quiet, and the few incidents of firing toward Israel in late 2012 were
likely unintended. Yet Israel is far from complacent – its airstrike near
Damascus, reported yesterday, highlights its concerns about the explosiveness of
the Syrian scene, particularly the proliferation of strategic
More broadly, Israel expects the nearly 40 years of calm along
the Syrian border to end once Bashar Assad falls, or even before
WHO WILL FILL THE VOID?
Israeli officials are skeptical about
whether Assad will be able to maintain his grip on power past this
Yet they also realize that the civil war may continue consuming the
country beyond his ouster. Although the turmoil diminishes the traditional risk
of war with the Syrian army, it highlights the risk of confrontation with
hostile non-state actors.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in the region,
Israel would not mourn Assad’s departure. He is a linchpin of the radical
Iran-Hezbollah axis and a staunch rival of Israel.
His fall would
therefore deal a major blow to Tehran, significantly weaken Hezbollah, and
dismantle the trilateral axis – the forces that may dominate Syria in the future
are unlikely to seek an alliance with actors that helped Assad butcher his
At the same time, Israel is concerned about who might fill the
post-Assad void. It is particularly troubled by the increasing weight of
Islamists in the opposition, the growing number of foreign jihadists (who have
become the most potent fighting force on the ground), and the West’s continued
passivity about supporting non- Islamist opposition forces. Ultimately, Israel
could find itself confronted by hostile Islamists in its two most important Arab
neighbors, Egypt and Syria – a reality that could have a dangerous regional
PUBLICLY SILENT, PRIVATELY CONCERNED
Throughout the Syrian
crisis, Israel has opted to keep a low public profile, realizing that it cannot
significantly influence the course of events. Moreover, given the region’s
widespread anti-Israel sentiments, any expression of sympathy for the rebels
could serve as a kiss of death that undermines them domestically and
In private, however (and occasionally in public), Israeli
officials have criticized the West for playing a passive role in the crisis
while Iran, Hezbollah and even Russia actively support the regime. In their
view, such passivity has helped empower Islamists and jihadists, enabling them
to radicalize the conflict. Some officials also use this argument to emphasize
that Israel must rely solely on itself when addressing matters of critical
national security importance; this includes maintaining an independent military
option against Iran’s nuclear program.
EYE ON THE REGION
closely following the conflict’s impact on Syria’s other
First, it is deeply concerned that the turmoil may breed
serious instability in Jordan, a country of strategic importance to Israel and
the West. In late December, an Arab newspaper reported that King Abdullah and
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had met secretly in Amman to discuss the Syria
situation, and Israeli government sources unofficially confirmed the
Regarding Lebanon, Israel is pleased at the pressure the crisis
has put on Hezbollah. Yet it also maintains a watchful eye, looking for signs of
the group lashing out in response to this pressure or seeking to obtain
strategic weapons from Syria.
The war has led Israel to rethink its strained relations with Turkey as well.
The two countries have several converging interests in Syria – this fact, set
against a regional background fraught with risks, will likely spur a fresh
Israeli attempt at normalization with Ankara.
PREPARING FOR CONTINGENCIES
Israel is currently focusing on contingencies that have a direct bearing on its
Strategic weapons: Of primary concern is the fate of Assad’s huge
arsenal of missiles, rockets and chemical weapons, which could fall into the
hands of jihadists in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both of these actors might
use such weapons to threaten Israel.
While the international community
focuses on the chemical stockpile, Israel is no less focused on the regime’s
abundance of other strategic weapons, including radars, groundto- ground
missiles and rockets, and sophisticated ground-to-air and ground-to-sea
Israel’s airstrike in Syria on the night of January 29-30 was
apparently aimed at countering such threats – according to some media reports,
the operation targeted a convoy carrying weapons to Hezbollah in
The Israeli government has maintained silence on the incident,
probably so that those targeted will not feel compelled to react violently. It
may also have the need to strike again in the future.
As for chemical
weapons, Israel has already joined Washington and other parties in an intensive
intelligence and policy dialogue on the subject. It has also prepared its own
military plans, focused on pinpoint airstrikes.
In early December,
columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the Atlantic that Israel had quietly
asked for Jordan’s consent – which was not given – to a contingency plan for
destroying Syrian chemical weapons sites.
The reason cited for the
request was the possible repercussions that such a strike might have on
Destabilization along the border: Israeli intelligence believes
that once Assad falls, the security situation along the border will gradually
deteriorate. This assessment is based on the growing number of jihadists in
areas close to the border, as well as indications that they are accumulating
weapons caches there. Fueled by a deep ideological enmity, these groups would
likely target Israel once the regime collapses. In addition, the IDF has not
ruled out the less likely scenario of Assad’s forces launching a final
cross-border act of desperation.
Whatever the case, the defense
establishment is convinced that Israel is about to enter a new era of
instability in which the existing jihadist challenge along the Sinai border is
joined by a similar jihadist challenge from Syria – perhaps even in coordination
with each other down the road.
If the situation does escalate, it is
unclear what will happen with the UN Disengagement Observer Force stationed in
the border area since 1974. Throughout the war, Israel has used UNDOF to convey
mostly deterrent messages to the Syrian regime and military. Also unclear is the
fate of the signals intelligence station that Iran operates in the Golan Heights
to collect information on Israel.
In response to the border threat,
Israel recently began erecting a sophisticated security fence in the Golan
similar to the one just completed in the south. Moreover, additional forces and
intelligence capabilities were deployed to the area, the level of alertness was
raised, and operational plans were developed for a possible cross-border
THE DAY AFTER
In Israel’s view, the most likely post-Assad
scenario is the emergence of a fragmented, decentralized and dysfunctional
Syria, with Tehran remaining active in parts of the country. Although a renewed
peace process between the two countries now seems unthinkable, some in Israeli
government circles have raised the possibility of seeking to align with
non-Muslim minority groups in Syria, especially in border areas. Such ideas are
reminiscent of Israel’s historical alignments with regional
Israelis also believe that the crumbling of Assad’s regime
could prove advantageous at a time when they face critical decisions regarding
the Iranian nuclear program. As mentioned previously, losing a strategically
important ally could be a major blow to Tehran – if Israel or the US later
decided to strike Iran, Syria would be unable to make a serious contribution to
Iran’s response, and Hezbollah would be denied a critical conduit of support and
resupply during and after the confrontation.
More than at any other time
since the uprising against Assad began, concerns about the growing chaos to the
north are resonating among Israel’s leaders.
Accordingly, the US, other
Western powers, and major regional actors should maintain a very close dialogue
with Israel regarding the risks and contingencies inherent in the demise of the
IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog is The Washington
Institute’s Milton Fine international fellow, based in Israel. Previously, he
served as senior military aide, adviser, and chief of staff to four defense
ministers and participated in Israel’s peace negotiations with
This article is part of “Syrian Spillover: Perspectives from
Neighboring States,” a series on how the conflict is affecting Turkey, Iraq,
Israel, Jordan and Lebanon.