The case for Israeli intervention in Syria

There is no question Israel will have to deal with a post-Assad Syria, so why not start that process now?

Anti-Assad protest in Syrian city of Hama 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anti-Assad protest in Syrian city of Hama 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For those who support Israel, perhaps the most ironclad principle of our diplomatic posture is non-intervention in the Arab Spring.
Unless there is an active Arab attempt to drag Israel into conflict to deflect popular internal dissent – as Bashar Assad attempted on the Golan to protest Naksa Day in June – conventional wisdom has Israel withdrawn to the periphery.
The argument, of course, is that a provoked Israeli response is just the tonic embattled Arab despots need to deflect attention to the old Zionist monster under the bed and stir up Iranian and leftist critiques of Israel.
Further, a desperate Assad (or even post-Mubarak Egypt) might escalate to non-conventional weapons in a bid to retain power: the massive Israeli retaliation would end internal uprisings.
These high-risk scenarios cultivate a conservative Israeli mindset according to which the Devil one knows is better than the Devil one doesn’t.
Far more manageable, Israeli leaders reason, is the de facto “No War, No Peace” policy of the Assads since Egypt left the war coalition after Camp David.
Domestic rule in Syria is secured via a combination of Mukhabarat repression and controlled conflict with the Israeli “bogeyman” via a Lebanese proxy.
It is hard to challenge these precepts. Splendid isolation for an Israel itself mired in social conflict – albeit peaceful and democratic – appears to be the correct course of action amidst Arab implosion. At the very least, and perhaps most cynical, Syria and Egypt are in no position to pose a strategic threat, embroiled as they are with unclear loyalties, chains of command, and domestic unrest. (As a concession to the Israeli Right, however, it is true that the fall of strongmen like Mubarak can create a power vacuum where the void is filled by terrorist groups).
This article, however, makes the improbable case that non-intervention is a mythical option for Israel. Israel is not the United States, where strategic choices are buffered by thousands of miles of ocean. Israel is not Europe: while both are now within range of Iranian missiles, Europe can still choose to disengage from Middle East politics. Israel can’t.
The improbable but correct course of action for Israel is, instead, much like the role Turkey has adopted, albeit without sufficient conviction. True, Israel could never send an envoy to Syria or Iran as Erdogan does, and the open wound with the Palestinians threatens democratic Israeli foreign policy with cries of hypocrisy. (For a far greater example of hypocrisy, however, consider Turkey’s human-rights pronouncements in Gaza and Syria even as Ankara bombs Kurdish rebels on its own turf and in northern Iraq).
That said, Israel should not miss the opportunity offered by the convergence of moral imperatives and strategic goals. From a pure Realist position, the prospect of isolating Hezbollah from Iran by the removal of the Assad regime dovetails well with the imperative to challenge the most vicious attacks on the Syrian people by the Assad regime.
It is critical to note that most of the social media sites that drive the Syrian Revolution are almost free of anti- Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric. The Syrian opposition, while neither cohesive nor well organized, is nonetheless realistic as to its objective and the nature of the problem: Assad. The courage of the opposition is monumental – a true hunger for freedom.
In this light, there is much more Israel could do to hasten Assad’s downfall and be on the “right side of history” without risk of regional conflict.
The most obvious measures might include a corridor for legitimate refugees from Syria via the Golan. Israel could then offer to set up its own camps to care for the refugees, or put these under UN auspices, or appeal to Turkey for cooperation.
Absurd as this sounds, consider the surprise of Israel’s adversaries and the prospective outcomes: Turkey’s rhetoric and inaction/rejection of the Israeli offer would expose Ankara’s hypocrisy and weaken its regional ambitions.
Quiet acceptance of an Israeli offer would hasten Assad’s demise, and establish Turkey as a true power broker between East and West.
As for Assad himself, the Syrian army is far too distracted, stretched and racked with strained loyalties to challenge Israel on the Golan. If nothing else, Israel could restore the respect and quiet loyalty of the Druse.
If a handful of the refugees are of Palestinian descent, so be it.
Provided security safeguards are followed to prevent terrorist infiltration, there is no reason why Israel can’t offer safe harbor to Palestinians under threat of death in Syria. Diplomatic fears that such a move would amount to a precedent for the right of return are unfounded. A specific response to prevent a bloodbath does not signal acceptance of the Palestinian extremist position.
The diplomatic coup presented by the flight of perhaps 1,000 Syrians to Israel could be tremendous. Hypocrisy? Not a chance. Israel affords itself a unique opportunity to show the world that a refugee is one in clear and immediate physical danger, not a third-generation descendant of the 1948 war.
Further, the Israeli navy could take up position just outside Syria’s nautical border. The posture would – again – be defensive militarily but with an “open arms” policy for poor Sunni refugees from Latakia in flight from Assad’s mercenaries. At the very least, the measure would expose the hypocritical outrage of the Gaza flotillas, whose organizers shed not a tear nor lift a finger for Syria.

There is no question Israel will have to deal with a post-Assad Syria, so why not start that process now? It is reasonable to presume that among the Syrians who take safe harbor outside the country, future leaders might be found – future leaders with less hostile memories of Israel. Israel cannot shape events in the Arab world, nor should it risk military intervention where there is no clear strategic threat.
The mistaken conclusion from these two precepts is self-imposed isolation. Once Israelis realize that this isn’t an option either, Israel can instead do what it used to do: Take the moral high ground, lead by example, and thus promote its diplomatic interests.
The writer holds a PhD in International Relations from Queen’s University, Ontario. He completed post-doctoral studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and follows Israel’s diplomatic and strategic position. Rusonik lives with his family in Toronto, working as an Information Technology Architect.