Experts deny Israel may directly intervene in Syria

Experts weigh in on likelihood of Israeli intervention in Syria.

May 24, 2013 02:02
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad heading a cabinet meeting in Damascus, February 12, 2013.

Bashar Assad 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout)

A New York Times report on Wednesday stated that Israel is contemplating directly intervening in Syria’s civil war with the possible creation of a buffer zone inside Syria or by supporting a proxy force such as the Druse. The report noted that Israeli security forces are quietly working with Syrian villagers, supplying humanitarian aid and gaining intelligence information.

Several Israeli experts and ex-government officials told The Jerusalem Post that any direct intervention in Syria’s civil war by Israel is both unlikely and unwise. Itamar Rabinovich, the vice chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies, a former ambassador to the US and Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995, is one of the experts quoted in the Times report. Rabinovich clarified to the Post that he does not see Israel getting involved before Syrian President Bashar Assad falls, but would not rule it out in case he does.

“Assad currently has the wind at his back,” said Rabinovich emphasizing that the situation is not an Israeli concern, but an international one, and that “we must not leap to the head of the line.”

Commenting on what the future could hold in Syria, Rabinovich opines the longer the civil war lingers, the more danger it creates because the country could fall into the hands of jihadists and destabilize neighbors such as Jordan. He urged US President Barack Obama to intervene, but not with troops on the ground – only by arming and aiding certain rebel elements.

A failure to act demonstrates weakness, he said.

Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN and the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told the Post he does not see Israel getting involved either by proxy or by creating a buffer zone. “It is not Israel’s approach to use proxies,” he said.

In regard to the buffer zone idea, he said that Israel has had bad experience with buffer zones, noting that Israeli military leaders also dislike the idea.

Gold noted that the French and British drew the modern map of the Middle East 97 years ago and it is not in Israel’s interest to get involved in these kinds of activities today as it will only make peace harder to achieve in the long run.

The main issue, said Gold, is how Tehran has increased its profile in this conflict, putting Iranian boots on the ground to fight Sunni Arabs in Syria and sending in Shi’ite militias from Lebanon and Iraq to assist.

“The Iranians made a decision that they cannot lose Syria at all costs,” said Gold. Thus, “it is not Israel” that seeks to intervene in Syria, but Iran.

Mehdi Taaib, a leading Iranian official, called Syria “the 35th district of Iran,” which Gold said shows Iran’s expansionist doctrine as opposed to Israel’s approach which remains defensive. Further supporting this claim is that Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guards commander of Iran’s elite special operations force, which operates overseas, is in charge of Iran’s forces fighting in Syria.

Gold added that the senior officer who is running the operation receives orders directly from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, agreed with Gold that Israel is better served by not involving itself in Syria’s war.

“Syria is a mess that nobody can fix at the moment. While trying to make contacts with potentially ascending powers is tempting, caution is needed in the treacherous region we live in,” he said.

“Prudence should be Israel’s guiding motto.”

Eyal Zisser – an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center – said Israel’s experience in Lebanon serves as a warning against intervention, because at first “we were welcomed and then everybody joined forces against us.”

“If the regime falls then they will look for other targets and we shouldn’t give them this opportunity,” he said.

However, Zisser does see an opportunity for Israel to take limited action or targeted strikes if there is a lack of stability and chaos, which lead to groups attacking Israel. “On a tactical level an army commander could say there is an important hill on the other side of the border,” he said, warning that the worry is once you get in, it will be difficult to get out.

Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, says he is neither pro-Assad nor pro-rebels necessarily.

“I am in favor of helping whichever side is losing, whichever that might be, because they are enemies,” he said.

Rabinovich disagreed with Pipes and cautioned against such statements. “It is not in our interest to perpetuate the civil war and it is better that this not be said publicly in Israel,” he said. Rabinovich said that when he met opposition leaders in Europe, they complained about pro-Assad statements from Israeli officials.

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