Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370.
(photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the beginning of the
month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed that they both supported the call by former
secretary of state Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, former director of the
CIA, to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.
Barack Obama opted not to listen to their advice. But even if Obama had not
decided to overrule these advisers and had intervened, it is difficult to
imagine positive outcomes from such an endeavor – particularly from Israel’s
point of view.
With or without foreign intervention, fighting in Syria
between forces led by Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite regime and the
predominantly Sunni opposition forces is unlikely to end with a stable partition
of the country along ethnic, sectarian lines. A fight to the death seems to be
playing itself out and after nearly two years of conflict, no clear victor has
From both an Israeli and a humanitarian perspective, neither an
Alawite nor a Sunni victory would be desirable.
The fighting in Syria is
essentially another chapter in the age-old Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, with Sunni
Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the opposition forces and Shi’ite Iran backing
Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
Without foreign intervention, the chance
that Assad will manage to overcome the rebels improves. In the case of such a
victory, the Alawite-Shi’ite axis would emerge strengthened and Iran – which has
been providing arms, troops and tactical support to Assad – would be emboldened
to continue to pursue its interests in Iraq and Bahrain, two countries with
Shi’ite majorities, and in Yemen, Kuwait and Afghanistan, where there are large
Shi’ite minorities. The Islamic Republic would also continue to foment hostility
toward the Jewish state via Hezbollah, its Shi’ite proxy in southern
Still, an Alawite-Shi’ite victory is not necessary the worst
scenario for Israel. Assad and his father do have a 40-year track record of
keeping the border with Israel quiet.
In contrast, the violent ousting of
Assad’s regime, while dealing a serious blow to the Islamic Republic’s ambitions
in the region– including its nuclear threat – would lead to the rise of yet
another Muslim Brotherhood aligned regime. Scarred by the memories of the Assad
family’s repression of Sunnis – including the 1982 Hama massacre of at least
10,000 Brotherhood supporters, men, women and their children – the rise of a
Sunni leadership would inevitably lead to widespread revenge killings of Syria’s
minority groups – Alawites, Druse, Christians and Kurds – who make up the core
of Assad’s supporters. Nor would a Muslim Brotherhood leadership be more
disposed to improving relations with Israel – just look at the
Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas regime in Gaza and Mohamed Morsi’s
Without any major foreign intervention, a continuation of the
conflict is likely. Though it perpetuates the humanitarian disaster,
non-intervention might reduce the chances of an attack on Israel since Assad’s
forces, the Hezbollah and Iranian troops, would be focused on defeating the
opposition and would not be interested in opening a new front with Israel. But
even that is not certain.
As Syria disintegrates into anarchy, the
country could very well be transformed into a breeding ground for jihadists,
uncontrolled chemical weapons and advanced Russian-made surface-to-air missiles
that, if transferred to Hezbollah in south Lebanon, could seriously compromise
Israel’s air superiority.
At the same time, Israel cannot rule out the
possibility that Syria and Hezbollah will initiate a limited confrontation with
Israel, in an attempt to redirect attention away from the sectarian bloodshed in
Syrian to the “Zionist entity.” Doing so would help Damascus find a common cause
That is why Israel has no interest in provoking Assad or
intervening in the civil war raging there. At the same time, Israel but must do
everything possible to protect its borders and prevent the flow of arms – both
conventional and unconventional – from Syria to south Lebanon.
circumstances, Panetta, Dempsey and other advocates of intervention might want
to reserve the right to say “I told you so” if the Assad regime survives – but
the benefits of intervention should not be overrated.