A strategic silver cloud

The Syrian civil war has removed the last remaining military threat on Israel’s borders, but the emerging chaos presents other challenges

Syrian Rebels 521 (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC)
Syrian Rebels 521
(photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC)
Surely the two-year-long civil war in Syria should have ended ages ago. It was and still is – better late than never – the moral duty of the impotent international community to put an end to the useless bloodshed.
The war of attrition between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and the fragmented opposition units has resulted thus far in 70,000 dead and 200,000 injured – mostly unarmed civilians – and one million refugees, who have found makeshift shelters in neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In light of the disagreements between Russia and the West on how to end the war, NATO forces, led by the US, should have intervened. Instead, however, they are sitting idle and paying only lip service to the Syrian tragedy.
This writer believes that despite the risk, even Israel should have shown its moral obligation to save lives, even of its sworn enemies, by declaring a no-fly zone and preventing the Syrian Air Force from attacking cities and villages.
Yet one cannot ignore the emerging reality that from a purely selfish, strategic point of view, which ignores the moral aspect, the war in Syria is a gift from heaven for Israel.
During the war between Iraq and Iran (1979-1988), Rafael Eitan, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces at the time, was asked which side Israel should support. “I wish success to both sides,” was his laconic response.
Many Israeli security experts believe that the longer the war goes on, and the deeper Syria sinks into self-destruction, the better for Israel. On the face of it, the current scenario north of the border seems to provide Israel with strategic benefits and enhance its own security interests.
Prior to the civil war, Syria was considered the last bastion of militancy in the Arab world towards Israel. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who, in 1991, ordered Scud-missile attacks on Israeli cities (the first time since 1948 that the home front came under missile fire – was toppled by the US invasion of 2003. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who financed terrorism against Israel, possessed chemical weapons and also aspired to acquire nuclear arms, was ousted by the Arab Spring.
Elsewhere, Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel and the Hashemite royal house, which rules the desert kingdom, still depends on Israeli might for its survival. And Egypt, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with the strongest military in the Arab World, still honors the peace treaty with Israel and adopts a pragmatic approach.
True, the Syrian military is not a match for the IDF. Its armored divisions and air force are equipped with outdated Soviet and Russian-made weapon systems.
Nevertheless, the Syrian army is a professional force with tradition; it has good, well-trained and disciplined commando battalions, fairly good air defenses (twice penetrated, according to foreign media, by the Israel Air Force – the 2007 strike on the al-Kibar nuclear reactor, and the interception early this year of an arms convoy heading to Hezbollah in Lebanon).
Above all, Syria has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel – civilian, military and strategic targets, including air bases, missile bases, army depots, power stations and the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Hundreds of these missiles are armed with chemical warheads.
Furthermore, over the past decade under Assad, Syria has played a vital part in the emergence of what King Abdullah of Jordan termed a Shi’ite crescent, an alliance of Shi’ite political forces in the Middle East, backed by a resurgent Iran, and including Syria’s Alawites and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with the specific aim of countering the Sunni Arab, US-backed states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
And there’s also Damascus’ support for Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, led by the aging Ahmad Jibril, and Hezbollah.
Now, however, there is a new reality, and the threat of Syria’s military and strategic capabilities, coupled with a proxy war of attrition by the terror groups, has significantly weakened in the last two years.
The headquarters of the terror groups have abandoned Syrian soil and their leaders are scattered in the Arab world. Instead of relying on the support of the Iranian- Syrian axis, Hamas has now to find its major benefactor in Egypt. In Israeli eyes, Egyptian patronage is always preferable.
And, for its part, the Syrian military is engaged in a bloody asymmetrical war against armed militias and guerrilla forces. The Syrian economy is collapsing; Hezbollah’s supply line from Iran via Syria is in jeopardy and it has been drawn deeper and deeper into the Syrian conflict and finds itself challenged by Sunni and al-Qaeda inspired groups that are fighting to topple Assad’s failing regime; and Iran’s aspirations of hegemony, backed by Syria, have suffered a major blow.
In such an environment, Israel has improved its intelligence capabilities visà- vis Syria. Civil wars, which create chaos and lead to the mass exodus of refugees, provide opportunities for intelligence agencies to recruit new agents and obtain valuable information. In the 1948 War of Independence, for example, Israeli security services took advantage of the disarray and the waves of Palestinian refugees fleeing the war zones to plant agents in the West Bank, Gaza and other Arab territories.
Israel, on the other hand, with huge waves of Jewish immigration from the former Eastern European communist bloc, found itself at the receiving end. In the 1950s and 1960s, the KGB, the fearsome and efficient security apparatus of the Soviet Union, along with its counterparts in neighboring countries, managed to infiltrate all key Israeli security agencies, including the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as secret scientific institutions.
One can assume that the same process is underway now. Agents are being recruited among Syrian refugees and contacts are being established with leaders and activists of the pro-Western moderate opposition groups. Desperate for weapons and support, they are ready to talk to anyone, and they also see Israel as a “door opener” with respect to the United States.
In other words, Syria has been further weakened, and no longer poses a credible threat to Israel. Nowadays, in fact, there is no credible military threat challenging Israel’s superiority in the region. Israel has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, and it is finding secret channels to reach out to the pro-Western Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They all are united by the fear of a nuclear Iran and are thus ready to cooperate with Israel.
Even Iran is a lesser threat than has been portrayed by the war drums of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Iran is 1,500 kilometers away from Israel and its only means of striking the Jewish state is with its ground-to-ground Shihab missiles. And while missiles can cause severe damage, they neither determine the battlefield nor pose an existential threat to the country.
Nevertheless, the Syrian chaos does bring some negative aspects and challenges for Israel. The short-term advantages may flip over and turn into long-range problems.
The IDF has to prepare itself for the emerging realities and it is already doing so. A new border fence is being constructed the length of the Golan Heights, and the IDF has increased the frequency of its patrols along the so far tranquil border with Syria.
But such measures are not sufficient. The IDF needs to change its war plans, which have been shaped over many years based on old assumptions. The old plans figured out that any future conflict with Syria would be between regular armies – tanks against tanks, infantry against infantry, air force against anti-aircraft batteries.
They are now less and less relevant.
Future scenarios have to take into consideration that Syria after Assad may be divided into a few fiefdoms run by ethnic warlords. The worst case scenario for Israel is that Islamist militias inspired by the jihad ideology of al-Qaeda will take control of the border area in the Golan Heights.
Some militant Islamists are already there.
They have posted videos on their websites showing their fighters taking photos of Israeli patrols near the border, and they were behind the kidnapping on March 6 of 21 Filipino soldiers serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been responsible since 1974 for keeping the peace between the two countries.
While benefiting from the Syrian chaos, Israel has to prepare itself for the worst eventuality that one day the tranquil border with Syria could turn into a new front dominated by terror attacks – rocket launches and cross-border infiltrations similar to what Israel has experienced along its borders with Lebanon and Gaza.