Analysis: Syria's war between anti-Israel forces leaves Jerusalem with difficult choices

Continued chaos in Syria is liable to spill over into Israel's territory without anyone to hold responsible on the Syrian side.

The war in Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
The war in Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
FOR SOME time now two major Muslim forces have been fighting for control over the Fertile Crescent. On the one hand, the radical Sunni ISIS wants to set up an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond; on the other, Shi’ite Iran aims to establish a “Shi’ite Crescent” in much the same space that would include a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, a pseudo-Shi’ite Alawite regime in Damascus and the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah ever more prominent in Lebanon.
These two rival forces are both hostile toward Israel and strongly supportive of the Palestinians.
After the capture of the cities of Ramadi west of Baghdad and Tadmur (Palmyra) northeast of Damascus in mid-May, it seems that ISIS is closing in on its territorial and ideological goals. It controls around 40 percent of Iraq and Syria in a contiguous swath that includes oil and gas fields and a number of small cities.
The ISIS fighters are highly motivated.
Their fighting spirit and capacity for rapid movement in open pickup trucks enabled them to capture large unpopulated desert expanses and less densely populated rural and urban areas. But they have only limited access to heavy weapons and the composition of their fighting reserves is also problematic. Many are not Iraqis or Syrians but rather nationals of other Arab, Muslim or European countries.
In the eyes of most Muslims in the region, especially the religious leaders, they are considered apostates who give Islam a bad name through the callousness and cruelty of their public executions, massacres, raping, pillaging and devastation of archaeological treasures.
Facing them is Iran, a full-fledged regional power determined to reinforce its Shi’ite-led axis. It provides its allies with arms, money and men in the struggle against ISIS and other Sunni groups. It backs local and outside Shi’ite militias like Hezbollah and deploys its own al-Quds and Revolutionary Guard forces in Iraq and Syria.
In an emergency, the possibility that Iran might send in regular troops in the framework of “mutual defense treaties” with Iraq or Syria cannot be ruled out. Iran will undoubtedly make a supreme military effort to prevent the fall of Karbala and Najaf, cities holy to Shi’a, into radical Sunni hands or the collapse of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, a key link in the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis.
One shouldn’t expect great power opposition to Iran’s fight against ISIS. On the contrary, Washington mistakenly considers ISIS the more dangerous foe and even coordinates its aerial attacks against the radical Sunni group with Tehran and Baghdad, and probably with Damascus as well. Russia, too, even if it withdraws its support for Assad, will continue to help Iran through the supply of sophisticated weaponry.
Therefore, there is a reasonable chance that Iran will gradually be able to defeat and marginalize ISIS, especially in Iraq where around 60 percent of the population is Shi’ite. Moreover, among the Sunni supporters of ISIS, there are tribal heads and former Ba’ath party loyalists and officers forced out of positions of power by the previous Shi’ite government in Baghdad; they could well be prized away from ISIS by reintegrating them in the Iraqi state.
THE KURDS in northern Iraq, about 20 percent of the population, are mainly Sunni but oppose both ISIS and direct Iraqi- Shi’ite rule. Therefore in the short term, given the weakness of the Iraqi army, Iraq will probably remain divided into three rival regions: the Kurds in the north, ISIS in the northwest, and the Shi’ite government around Baghdad and in the south. In the longer term, there could be a Shi’ite-Kurdish agreement on a new Iraqi federation, after jointly expelling ISIS from its strongholds. An alternative scenario might see Iraq breaking up and Iran taking over the southern part of the country.
In Syria, the balance of power is more complex. About 70 percent of the population is Sunni, including 10 percent Kurds, who in the main oppose the Alawite regime and its Shi’ite-Iranian patron. But many Sunnis, as well as Christians, Druse and Alawites, are opposed to ISIS because of its religious fanaticism and cruelty toward secular Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. Recent reports on tactical cooperation between ISIS and Assad are likely to further strengthen mainstream Sunni opposition to both.
For much of the fighting, the Sunni opposition has been fragmented into scores, even hundreds of uncoordinated and sometimes rival groups. Similarly, the aid they received from the region and the West was ineffectually disbursed.
Recently, however, important Sunni opposition groups have developed an impressive degree of military cooperation and coordination. This includes moderate secular forces like the Free Syrian Army and various Islamic Fronts, the Muslim Brothers and even al-Qaedalinked Jabhat al-Nusra.
They are operating under the umbrella of a new fighting force, “Jaish al-Fatah” or the “army of conquest,” which has had significant successes in north and southeast Syria against both ISIS and government forces. The new force has received substantial, well-coordinated aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The US, which supplies heavier weaponry to some of these rebel groups, opposed the cooption of Jabhat al-Nusra, and has yet to back the new force. But if it were to change its position and provide them with air cover, there is a good chance that they could repel both ISIS and government forces, and gain control of significant amounts of Syrian territory.
The Kurds in the northeast have no part in this new organization which is also aimed at them. Turkey, after all, is still the main enemy of Kurdish independence.
And despite its weakness, the Assad regime still controls around 40 percent of Syrian territory, especially the large cities and the northwestern Alawite enclave. In its fight for survival, it has the weighty backing of Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Its chances of survival are not negligible, especially in light of continued Iranian and Russian support. In early June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promised that Iran would stand by Assad “till the end.”
Another option for Assad would be to hunker down in the Alawite enclave in the northwest around the port cities of Latakia and Tartous, which serves as a Russian naval base. The Druse, who have tended to support him, are concentrated mainly in Jebel Druse and Houran. Should Assad fall, they might attempt to establish a mini-state together with the Druse both on the Golan Heights and in Wadi al-Taym in southern Lebanon under tacit Israeli patronage.
Israel faces a difficult dilemma. Continued chaos in Syria is liable to spill over into its territory without anyone to hold responsible on the Syrian side; an ISIS victory, especially in the south, would put radical Islamists on the Israeli border; but a victory by Assad and the Shi’ite axis poses an even greater threat – with Iran still in the nuclear hunt and Hezbollah’s arsenal of 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
Israel’s potential allies, in what will be a highly problematic situation however it turns out, are the moderate Sunni states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and through them the Sunni opposition forces they back in Syria. Apart from Egypt, they all seem to think that only “Jaish al-Fatah” is capable of both defeating the Assad regime and blocking ISIS.
That might be the best option for Israel.
But is Israel capable of backing plans that, inter alia, demand restoring ties with Turkey and renewing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians? The chances of the current government making either move seem remote. 
Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, is an expert on Syria and ethnic politics in the Middle East
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Report.