The Syrian civil war between the Syrian government and Sunni Islamist insurgents has reached Israel’s doorstep in the Golan, and Israel needs to decide upon a policy for how to deal with it. So far, Israel has been fighting the last war instead of the present one, ignoring the enormous changes which have taken place in the Middle East since 2011, assuming that Syria is the enemy and taking the side of the Islamist insurgents when it has acted at all. For example, Israel’s hospitals have treated insurgents who have been wounded by the Syrian Army, but not Syrian soldiers who have been wounded by insurgents, and on August 26, when stray fire from a battle in the Golan between the two sides slightly wounded an Israeli army officer, Israel responded by shelling two Syrian army positions but did not take any action against the Islamist insurgents. In fact, as incredible as it may seem, Israel’s actions since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, combined with an imaginative use of certain documents of questionable authenticity, have even led to a widespread belief in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq that Israel is actively supporting the most radical elements in the insurgency.
Israel should replace this policy regarding the Syrian civil war of “leaning” toward the Islamists with one of “leaning” toward the Syrian government.
That is, Israel should either do nothing regarding the civil war or, if it is necessary for one reason or another to take some action, this action should be against the insurgents rather than against the government, and there should be a discussion about what if anything should be done in this respect. Western countries have already publicly taken this position and Israel should also. There are several reasons for this.
First, the Syrian government led by the Assads’ Alawite clique has a proven record of supporting quiet on the border with Israel, to the extent that it has been able to. Israel’s border with Syria had been completely quiet since 1973, and it is clear that it is the Islamist insurgency, not the Syrian government, which has brought the fighting close to the Israeli border since then.
This is not like Yasser Arafat claiming to be fighting against terrorists while at the same time supporting terrorists to attack Israel – the Syrian Army is involved in a life-or-death struggle and there is no question that it simply cannot control the situation. If Israel wants to stop cross-border fire, it should bomb the insurgents’ positions next to the border, not the Syrian Army.
Second, there is no question that from a moral standpoint, the Syrian government is incomparably superior to the Islamists it is fighting against.
The dominant group of insurgents, the Islamic State (IS), is the greatest evil that the Middle East has seen since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, as its record of beheadings, rapes, forced conversions and mass executions of members of particular ethnic groups over the past few months will attest. In Syria, everyone knows that the Syrian Army is protecting non-Sunnis – Alawites, Christians, Druse, Shi’ites and Ismailis – from IS. Although the Syrian government has been accused of war crimes, it is important to remember that their accusers have been exactly the same people – the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera, CNN, etc. – that have accused Israel of war crimes, and the people they have been fighting against – Wahhabist radicals – have used the same tactics to gain sympathy for their fight against Syria that we have come to recognize in their fight against Israel.
For example, early in the uprising in 2011, when unarmed demonstrators took to the streets to demonstrate against the Syrian government, armed Islamists went in among the demonstrators and opened fire on Syrian police, naturally drawing return fire resulting in unarmed protesters dying and the story being accepted that Assad was “killing his own people.”
Israelis will recognize this tactic from the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, which similarly turned the international community against Israel from the very beginning, and any criticism of the Syrian government’s behavior from a moral point of view should be evaluated with this in mind.
Third, the secular and quasi-socialist Alawite regime of Syria has always been completely mismatched with the Shi’ite Islamists of the Iran-Hezbollah “axis of resistance,” in terms of both religious identity and ideology, and there have been clear signs in the past few years that the Alawite leaders of Syria are interested in leaving this alliance altogether and abandoning their anti-Israel position, if they can find other allies to support them.
The Alawites only turned to Iran in the 1980s because they had no other possible allies, but since 2011, strong support from Russia in terms of both weaponry and vetoes at the UN have changed this situation.
Regarding Israel, the most significant development is that Syria has responded to its ongoing conflict with the Sunni Islamists by cutting off relations with Hamas entirely, expelling its leadership from Damascus in February 2012 and not renewing contact with it since then. Even in the most recent round of fighting with the Palestinians, in which Iran and Hezbollah have claimed that they will try to renew their relationship with Hamas, Syria has broken with them by continuing to reject any compromise with Hamas, thus effectively becoming neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the past year Syria has also cooperated with the UN Security Council to destroy its own chemical weapons (as of August 28, this process was reported by the OPCW as 93 percent completed), further evidence that it does not want to behave as a rogue state any longer. In another move demonstrating independence from Iran, Syria publicly announced on August 25 that it is ready to work with the United States, Great Britain and other world powers to fight Islamist terrorism.
And it seems that this willingness extends to cooperation with Israel. On August 27, Hamad Awidat, a reporter for Syrian state television, gave an exclusive interview to Israel’s i24 television station from the Syrian side of the Golan about the conflict there, in which he openly appealed for cooperation with Israel against the Islamists, concluding: “Everyone has to wake up... there are terrorists there, there are non-human people there... they are killing everyone, everyone has to fight these terrorists, let’s stop talking about the Syrian regime and let’s stop talk about the Palestinian movement or Hezbollah – everyone has to fight this ISIL [Islamic State], it’s a cancer that has been [getting] close... to the Israeli state.”
Such a statement by a reporter for the Syrian government’s news agency, whose words are presumably closely monitored by the government, suggests very strongly that the Syrians are interested in working with Israel.
There is now a unique opportunity to wean Syria away from its alliance with Iran and the anti-Israel policy which is associated with this alliance. Without the Syrian regime, Iran would be left with only Hezbollah as an ally in the area, and to the extent that Syria has allies other than Iran, they will be in a position to dictate to Hezbollah the terms of their working together rather than the other way around. Israel has a chance to essentially eliminate Iran as a local actor and secure its northern border, as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have secured its southern and eastern borders. Help from Russia has already made Syria less dependent upon Iran, and it is clearly reaching out to Western countries and Israel to find other alternatives to Iran. We should not miss this opportunity.The author is professor of linguistics in the English Department at the University of Haifa, and he has written and lectured widely on the relationship between religion and nationalism, including his book Language, religion, and national identity in Europe and the Middle East, and his article “Religion and nationalism” in the most recent edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.