Israel needs to reassess its Syria policy

In recent months the situation has gone from posing tactical problems to creating strategic dilemmas requiring a new assessment and possibly a new approach.

June 15, 2017 12:26
3 minute read.

A UN observation tower is seen overlooking Syria, next to the Quneitra border crossing between the Golan Heights in Israel and Syria.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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As the situation in Syria attracts and involves outside actors and impacts on regions and states beyond its borders, Israel no longer enjoys the luxury of limiting its interest to the Golan Heights border area and the transfer of weapons through Syria to Hezbollah. In recent months the situation has gone from posing tactical problems to creating strategic dilemmas requiring a new assessment and possibly a new approach.

The most important and far-reaching development is the entry of ground forces of three states, mainly Russia and Iran, with a lesser US presence. That Russian and Iranian presence is not going to disappear easily and quickly even when a long-term solution for Syria obtains. These two states conduct their military operations treating Hezbollah as an equal. Furthermore, the US-led coalition has accepted Hezbollah military presence as an uncontested matter of fact.

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These facts are not going to change and Israel has to assume that it will now face Iran and Russia in a manner much different from that existing before 2011. Iran and Russia directly and Hezbollah through Iran already have a decisive say in the early stages of deliberations over Syria’s political future. The Russian and Iranian presence and long-term goals may pose serious problems for Israel. While the de-confliction mechanism with Russia is sufficient for daily, tactical issues it is far from being adequate for complicated geopolitical and geostrategic issues.
Netanyahu: Israel welcomes US airstrikes in Syria (credit: GPO)

One such issue is Iran’s ambition to create a “Cordon Iranienne” stretching across Iraq, Syria/Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Iran’s enmity and hostility toward Israel could be contained to a large extent because there was no direct contact. There is a new reality and Iran is politically and militarily present in a close proximity. This is unacceptable to Israel and presumably unacceptable to others including the US, Russia and Turkey.

Even if that Iranian ambition is checked, it is quite possible that with no preventive measures taken Israel may find itself facing two Hezbollah fronts, one in Lebanon and one in Syria, though not necessarily right on the Golan Heights border. The post-Syria conflict Hezbollah will be a different foe – experienced in much more than guerrilla warfare.

Turkey has been known to have an interest in the situation along its Syrian and Iraqi borders but as the internal conflict widened and deepened so did the military and political Turkish involvement. Turkey, alongside Russia and Iran, will no doubt have a major stake in Syria’s future. Turkey’s interest in Syria may not necessarily create a conflict with Israel but the problem is that notwithstanding the restoration of diplomatic relations, the two countries lost the mutual confidence and intimacy which existed prior to 2009-10.

The future political configuration of Syria is just one of several strategic issues that require review and determination. Another is the whole Syrian refugee impact on the host countries Jordan and Lebanon. Each hosts between 1 million and 1.5 million and it is very doubtful whether they return to their homeland anytime soon. Very difficult political, economic, legal and security problems have already arisen and they will become tougher, especially if short-term solutions are applied. It is not too early for Israel to begin studying the long-term implications for example on Jordanian domestic politics and security, economics and relations with Israel. Adding to the quantity of water Israel is already supplying to Jordan may become just one of measure Israel has to take to help the Jordanian regime maintain stability.

The thousands of European volunteers that will have survived the fighting in Syria and Iraq may, in the post-ISIS chapter of their lives, direct their zeal and experience against Israeli targets. Dealing with the problem may require an upgraded cooperation and understanding with certain European and other governments and their relevant authorities. It may also require the creation of new task forces.

We have highlighted only some of the issues which call for a new Israeli approach to Syria and the long-term questions the war in that country has generated. Looking at Syria solely through the Golan Heights lens has long been unsatisfactory, and we for a call for broadening the scope of the Israeli analysis of developments in Syria, drawing Israel’s map of interests in post-conflict Syria and acting accordingly.

Both writers are now senior researchers at the Institute for Strategic Studies affiliated with Tel Aviv University and served in senior positions in the Israeli government.

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