There are some subtle issues coming out of the Syrian civil war for Israel. It is clear that Israel is neutral on the war, isn’t going to get dragged into it, and that the longer it goes on, the less it threatens Israeli national security.
It should be equally clear, however, that in the end Israel wants the rebels to win.
Syria’s regime is supported by Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad government.
These are the greater of the two evils. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood regime is shaken up and replaced in some way by the army, that would provide another argument for preferring the rebels, because it would show the Sunni Islamist bloc is weaker and thus less of a threat than Iran.
Again, it should be underlined that the difference isn’t perceived as huge. Military institutions are generally more favorable to the rebels, given their anti-Iran nuclear weapons emphasis. Other agencies don’t forget the threat the Sunni Islamists would pose if they won. But again, that threat would be reduced if the Egyptian Brotherhood regime falls.
However, for Israel there are several other aspects to the Syria situation.
The Golan Heights
Israel will not come down from the strategic Golan, at least for many decades to come. With either Sunni or Shi’a extremists in charge, Syria’s anti-Israel stance will be strong under any conceivable government. At the same time, that Syrian government will be weaker. The United States is in temporary or permanent eclipse and cannot possibly – and will not – exercise major leverage on Syria.
You can bet that without a utopian transformation of the region, Israel will remain on the Golan.
It seems equally clear that support for Hezbollah from Lebanese, Syrian, Sunni and Islamist leaders and others is much reduced. Given this situation, Hezbollah cannot attack Israel, certainly not while its best troops are tied down in Syria.
And if the rebels win in Syria, they will take on Hezbollah, also supporting Lebanese Sunni Islamists.
Hezbollah will be too busy fighting against fellow Arabs to start a war with Israel.
Politically, this is the best moment for Kurds in modern history, with a ceasefire with Turkey and its help in Syria; a de facto state in northern Iraq (though it will not be a full-fledged state); and autonomy in Syria. Central and southern Iraq are booming with terrorism, but Kurdistan (the Kurdish Regional Government) is booming with prosperity.
The fact is that the Kurds do not share in the Arab blood feud with Israel. In both Iraq and Syria, they want good relations and commerce with Israel. Whether the dealings would be overt or covert, this new political relationship is going to be a significant factor in the Middle East.
The Druse have a tougher time, since they do not have a strategic boundary with a friendly country as the Kurds do. Nevertheless the Druse are at a historical turning point. They have given their loyalty to the Syrian regime, with the Golan Druse showing special devotion, fueled largely by fear for the fate of relatives on the other side of the border.
Now, however, they see the Assad regime in trouble. At this point they must question their loyalties.
Would a Sunni Islamist regime be so kind to them? On the one hand, the Druse have served not with the rebels, but with the regime. Secondly, when all is said and done, from a Muslim perspective, the Druse are infidels – actually, even worse: Muslim apostates.
Druse from the Golan have asked Israeli authorities about bringing in refugees from Syria. Might persecuted Syrian Druse take Israeli citizenship and take the step of joining their fate, as individuals or collectively, with Israel as their cousins across the border did in 1948?
Obviously, if the regime loses in Syria that will weaken Iran. But there’s something more here. If Iran loses in Syria, it means the end of the Iranian bid for Arab hegemony, because the split between Sunni and Shi’a is so bloody and passionate. But even if Iran wins, the bitterness will have the same effect.
And with Middle East hegemony out of Iran’s reach, Tehran has less reason to threaten Israel or to consider using nuclear weapons against it.
Finally, Syria has done something momentous in regional terms. It has broken the myth of the “Israel card” or “linkage.”
You can still argue that an Arab ruler can make political capital by blaming Israel, or that solving the Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian conflict will fix everything in the region, but no one in the region will take you seriously. No one, that is, except US Secretary of State John Kerry on his frequent, short but useless junkets.
The author is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) and Turkish Studies. His forthcoming book is Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press).