Syrian refugees are reflected in a puddle as they wait for their turn to enter Macedonia at Greece's border.
Syria now marks five years of civil war. Since the beginning of the showdown Israel has been uncertain whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall would be beneficiary to it. On the one hand there were Assad’s ties with Israel’s sworn enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, but on the other hand there was the unpredictability of a post-Assad era.
Unofficially there has been an approach in Israel saying that the various sides in Syria should bash each other as long as possible.
Israel was definitely not looking for a confrontation with Assad, in spite of the weakness of its old adversary. Israel, since 2013, only launched a few air strikes inside Syria, aimed at preventing Hezbollah from gaining advanced weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles.
Assad could have retaliated but he did not.
In the past Israel had intervened in Arabs’ civil wars. In 1970 Israel deterred Syria from continuing its invasion of Jordan, which allowed the Hashemite kingdom to overcome its rebels, i.e. the PLO. In the civil war in Syria, Israel avoided assisting Assad against the insurgents.
Israel also did not try to prevent Assad’s enemies from penetrating into Syria, not that Israel could have done much in this field. Furthermore, Israel did not collaborate with members of the Syrian elite, certainly not as Israel did with the Christian leaderships in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the civil war in that country.
Israel still has grim memories of its intervention in Lebanon, where Israelis troops were bogged down for 18 years, suffering sometimes heavy casualties. Israel does not wish to sink into another quagmire.
THE MOST positive change in Israel’s favor is that Syria’s military ability has diminished drastically since 2011, following the civil war. Syria’s military had hundreds of thousands of troops, but has much less today.
Assad’s units had massive firepower, including hundreds of long-range surface-to-surface missiles that could have hit Israel’s major cities.
Those missiles were fired, but against Assad’s enemies inside Syria.
Assad also had to give up most of his chemical weapons stockpile.
Assad’s armed forces are no match for their Israeli counterpart. With all the combat experience Assad’s military has acquired in recent years, a war against Israel would be very different. Instead of lightly armed rebels, the Syrian military would have to deal with Israel’s mighty air force and thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, etc. Assad knows how such a collision would end. Israel would crash Assad’s forces so fast and to such a degree that he would be left very vulnerable and actually at the mercy of his opposition.
Since late 2014 almost all the border between Syria and Israel, in the Golan Heights, has been in the hands of armed groups, diminishing the friction between Israel and Assad even more. Nevertheless, another incident at the border, or more Israeli strikes inside Syria to stop the delivery of advanced weapon to the Hezbollah, might escalate the situation and lead to a clash between Israel and Assad and/or his allies, mostly Hezbollah.
Some of the armed groups that are near the border in the Golan Heights are affiliated with al-Qaida/ Islamic State (ISIS). There is a chance of a clash between them and Israel.
Armed outfits in Syria could try to infiltrate and/or shoot rockets and mortar shells at Israel. The Golan Heights, the scene in recent years of several incidents, might turn to be more and more dangerous for the 20,000 Israelis living there. It would not be as risky as a full-scale war between Israel and Syria, such as the one of 1973, which has fortunately not happened since.
Israel did not want to be unprepared so a new fence was built on the border with Syria. The height of the fence is five and in some places seven meters. Near the border the IDF has added border trenches, landmines and observation posts, etc.
Following Russia’s military involvement in Syria, since October 2015, Israel has to be careful not to collide with Russian forces, mostly aircraft which bomb targets around Syria. Israel has been concerned also that Russia might give Assad sophisticated weapons such as the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Then Assad might use those weapons against Israel or deliver them to the Hezbollah.
All in all Israel could implement dual containment of both Assad and Syrian armed groups while staying as much as possible out of the war in Syria. Western states don’t seem to want Israel to intervene, let alone militarily, in the Syrian civil war.
However, Israel might be dragged into that war against its will, particularly if there is a wave of deadly assaults on the Golan Heights.
The author is an analyst of Israel’s national security.
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