(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US seems to be getting more involved in Syria’s messy civil war and this might have positive implications for Israel.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled a decision to send US special operations personnel to Syria. On the same day, 17 countries, the European Union and the United Nations called in Vienna for a nationwide truce in Syria’s civil war.
At least one US official admitted to Reuters off record that the announcement that America would put “boots on the ground” in Syria added to “a building sense of momentum” and could increase the US’s diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis Russia.
At just 50 soldiers in an advisory role, the US force slated to be sent to Syria is minuscule and will not have a direct impact on the fundamentals. But combined with an expanding clandestine CIA program that channels weapons to opponents of President Bashar Assad, particularly TOW anti-tank missiles, increasing US involvement in Syria is unmistakable.
How would a bigger US role in Syria affect Israeli interests? Since the start of the civil war four-and-a-half years ago, Israel has sagaciously avoided getting dragged into the conflict. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has articulated on numerous occasions – most recently during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21 – Israel has three main interests in Syria: First, Israel will respond to hostile fire emanating from Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon or parts of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights that have fallen into the hands of Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra.
Second, Israel will not tolerate the transfer of munitions from Syria to Lebanon. According to foreign news sources, Israel has already attacked several convoys or munitions depots of advanced Russian-made arms, because the arms were ear-marked for Hezbollah.
Finally, as Netanyahu made clear in Moscow during his meeting with Putin, Israel will prevent Iran from establishing a new terrorist front on the Golan Heights.
Still, Israel has an interest in seeing the Assad regime collapse.
Assad’s continued survival has led to the strengthening of Hezbollah and the increased involvement of Iran on Israel’s northern border. And all this has been facilitated by Russia’s support for Assad.
While Islamic State is a potential threat to Israel, particularly in Sinai, its limited military capabilities and its geographic distance from Israel’s borders make it less of a concern.
In contrast, Hezbollah has long-range missiles and rockets that can reach anywhere in Israel. As Putin strengthens Assad he is also emboldening Hezbollah, particularly when Russian arms find their way into the hands of the Shi’ite terrorist organization.
And because Assad is aligned with Iran, Russia is essentially sustaining an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis that helps Tehran in its drive for regional hegemony. The threat presented by this axis is further augmented by Iran’s ongoing efforts to arm itself with nuclear bombs.
But as Russia pushes its hand in Syria, thus forcing the US to increase its involvement, new opportunities are created for Israel. One option worth pursuing is an attempt to strengthen ties with Sunni states.
The Jewish state and a number of Sunni countries share an interest in seeing Assad’s ouster. Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, praised the deployment of US special operations troops in Syria. But he said that it was not enough for the US to target ISIS. The US had to widen its goal.
“Any attempts to go after IS[IS] in Syria without dealing with the root cause, which is Bashar Assad, are doomed to failure,” Jubeir said, noting that many Sunni Islamists have joined in the war against Assad.
The Saudis share Israel’s interest in seeing the Iran-Hezbollah axis weakened, as do Turkey, Egypt and other Sunni states.
Under the leadership of the US, a coalition of Sunni states could be formed to counter the Russia-Iran alliance.
And Israel could serve as an important strategic partner. President Barack Obama ostensibly supports regime change in Syria. The question remains whether the Obama administration will actively pursue such a policy. An end to the Assad regime would be a severe blow to Iran and Hezbollah and, thus a boon to Israel.