Ramifications for Israel of a Syrian civil war

A Syrian civil war could prove to help Israel more than it hurts.

Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ever since the Arab Spring began, Israelis have fretted endlessly about what regime change will mean for our national security. While the rest of the world was jubilant, Israeli commentators mostly joined in a different chorus: The Arab Spring will beget an Islamist Winter. The implication has been clear: the wave of democracy washing over the Arab World will undermine our security.
In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, such concerns have real merit—especially in the short and intermediate future. Yet, if Syria does get pulled down the vortex of civil war—which previously I wrote was nearly inevitable, even if Syrian President Bashar Assad abdicates—it may actually improve Israel's strategic position.
Let's begin our crystal-ball gazing with the more obvious implications: Syrian turmoil will spell disaster for all of the main terror groups who oppose Israel's existence, namely Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Hezbollah. For decades, Damascus has served as the key safe haven for Israel's enemies. Hamas moved its headquarters there after the Khaled Mashaal affair in the late 1990s and PIJ has had its headquarters in Damascus for since 1989.
While Hezbollah is headquartered in Lebanon, it is quite telling that Hezbollah head of military operations Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. However, with the Syrian police state crumbling and civil war spreading, Damascus will no longer be as secure or easy a city for these groups to operate in. Their leaders will no longer sleep soundly nor commute to work seamlessly, and this will take a toll.
While a Syrian civil war will be particularly painful for Hezbollah, it will be doubly true if the Assad regime eventually falls, as a future Sunni regime is far more likely to support former Syrian prime minister Saad Hariri's Sunni faction (at least initially) than their Shi'a rivals. Besides the material, political and intelligence support Hezbollah receives directly from Syria, losing Syria will also make it far more difficult for Iran to continue arming Hezbollah. Although arms could be flown in directly, such a route will be far more limited and less discreet than via Damascus.
A weakened Hezbollah is also connected to another issue: if Syria is fully occupied in a civil war, the Assad regime is going to have very few resources leftover to expend on continued meddling in Lebanon's internal politics. As a reminder, for over thirty years, Syria has brutally forced Lebanon into submission as an unofficial satellite state. Even after its army was forced to withdraw in 2005, it used intelligence services and proxy forces to conduct a brazen campaign of public assassinations that terrorized Lebanon’s leaders, prominent personalities and private citizens into accepting its continued domination of their country.
So that if it becomes clear that a Syrian civil war will continue for an extended amount of time, or if it starts to look like the Syrian opposition may eventually be successful in overthrowing the Assad regime, then the March 14 movement will eventually re-assert itself and start demanding true sovereignty for their country. With a weakened Hezbollah, such moves by an emboldened March 14 alliance could spark violent confrontation in that country as well.
Third, Syrian decent into turmoil, or the fall of the Assad regime, will also be a huge blow for Iran, which will lose its only real dependable ally (Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are really proxies more than allies). As a result, Iran's bid for increased regional influence over the course of the past decade is more likely to end in its regional isolation.
Still, perhaps the most interesting implication of a Syrian civil war concerns Turkey. To begin, as with all civil wars, this one is likely to produce a tidal wave of refugees seeking to escape the mayhem and bloodshed. As past wars have demonstrated, these refugees don't usually go to the West, but mostly end up in neighboring countries (especially the stable, wealthier ones).
While this sounds quite minor, these refugees are huge fiscal burdens on the states that provide safe havens, and can often threaten delicate internal balances in these host countries. University of North Texas Professor Idean Salehyan has found that the issue is so important that such refugee waves will often push these host countries to intervene in the civil wars.
Turkey will be especially tempted to intervene as it is the only adjacent neighbor with the sort of massive military might which could potentially overwhelm both local insurgents and the Syrian army, meaning it has the potential to bring an eventual end to the fighting. In addition, while traditionally Turkey has been wary of getting involved in former Ottoman territories, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has sought to re-assert itself as a leader in regional affairs, and thus the country might be prime for such intervention.
The bottom line: events in Syria are likely to occupy Turkey's focus for a long time to come. A Syrian civil war may pit Turkey's interests against those of Iran and Russia, and could even drag Turkey into a long-running quagmire. Regardless, from Israel's standpoint, all this means less time for Erdogan to spend on his favorite pastime: whipping up anti-Israel sentiment at home and abroad.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.