What is Israel’s interest in Syria?

While the Assad regime is linked to Iran and Hezbollah, some experts say most of the groups opposing him are in one way or another close in ideology to either al-Qaida or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jabhat al-Nusra figter, Syria370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Jabhat al-Nusra figter, Syria370
(photo credit: Reuters)
What is Israel’s interest in Syria and the possibility of a US-led attack? Israel’s current policy seems to be to stay out of it unless any red lines are crossed, at which point it would act covertly to deal with the threat.
A key reason for the ambivalence of Israeli experts and policy makers is that there is no clear path to take – both Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime, which is allied with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah, and the Islamist-dominated opposition forces are distasteful.
Robert Kaplan, the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, wrote in a recent article that a stalemate and continuation of the conflict may be the best outcome. He cited the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) as an example of a conflict that benefited the Reagan administration.
“By tying down two large and radical states in the heart of the Middle East, the war severely reduced the trouble that each on its own would certainly have caused the region for almost a decade,” Kaplan wrote.
The debate in the US and in the media has recently focused on the identity of the Syrian opposition and if there could be some secular or Western-friendly elements that could be supported in the case that Assad falls.
In Congress, US Senator John McCain made the case that the opposition is not as radical as many have been saying, citing a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, who argued that Islamic radicals are not dominating the rebel forces.
“Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces,” she wrote.
Many analysts were surprised by O’Bagy’s assertion, and information has recently come to light demonstrating that O’Bagy is not a neutral observer. According to an interview with The Daily Caller website, she admitted that she also serves as a paid adviser to a pro-rebel lobby group in the US.
She serves as the political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group lobbying in the US on behalf of the Syrian rebels.
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Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, a former president of Tel Aviv University and a past ambassador to the US who participated in peace negotiations with Syria in the 1990s, told The Jerusalem Post that “no one can tell you what the balance of forces is between jihadists and secular opposition groups.”
He argues that the secular opposition cannot be written off completely, and it is “not necessarily true that Islamists would come to power if Assad falls.”
The key factor for Rabinovich is if the West “becomes involved and can push the secularist forces,” allowing them to take power.
“Don’t think that the toppling of Assad would lead to a jihadist takeover,” he said.
What is better for Israel, Rabinovich asked rhetorically: a continuation of Israel being under the threat from the Iran/Hezbollah/Syria axis or “a victory by the opposition with the risk, not the certainty, of an Islamist takeover?” “Syria is not the Sinai,” he said, differentiating between Egypt – where Islamists operate, but where Israel does not intervene because it respects Egyptian sovereignty – and Syria, where Israel can act against them.
Prof. Barry Rubin, director of the GLORIA Center and a columnist for the Post, said that the civil war is in a state of deadlock and that there has been little change in the last year in the balance of power between the sides. This, Rubin added, is likely to continue for years unless outside intervention tips the scales.
Israeli interests in light of the Syrian conflict revolve around the following points, according to Rubin. First, by attacking, the US would show it lives up to its commitments; secondly, the impact of action or inaction by the US on Iran¹s nuclear weapon program; thirdly, the identity of who will be running the show in next-door Syria; and fourth, Israel¹s fear that it won¹t be attacked and/or that chemical weapons may be sent to Hezbollah.
A key question that has not been discussed much, says Rubin, is what Iran wants out of this – does it seek total victory in Syria or would it be happy with some kind of partition of the country in order to maintain its access to the Mediterranean? Asked about the latter possibility, Rubin said it might not be agreed upon, but it is possible that it could become a de facto reality, or it might come about if some kind of Western-backed agreement implements a cease-fire based on geographical lines.
In any case, he said, “a US attack is not going to settle the civil war.”
Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and senior research fellow at the GLORIA Center who has traveled widely in Syria, said that the Islamist opposition can be divided into three main blocks: those that are ideologically affiliated with al-Qaida, such as al-Nusra; those that are not directly linked with al-Qaida but are still in favor of an Islamic state and are against a Western-style liberal democracy; and the Syria Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of Islamist Salafi rebel groups that differ from al-Qaida in some ways.
The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, one of the strongest rebel groups, is the main group that people raise questions about, Spyer said. It is also the group many people believe is made up of some secular forces.
“My experience in Syria and as a researcher of Syria leads me to believe that the majority of forces associated with this group are not democratic but resemble a Muslim Brotherhood-type of stream,” Spyer said.
He said there are some secular officers outside of the country and a few secular units on the ground, but when he asks Syrians if they know of a secular brigade – “nobody can name one, because they don’t exist.”
Spyer said he is in favor of a US strike in order to deter the future use of chemical weapons, but not of overthrowing Assad.
His preference is that there should not be a huge discussion in Congress, but that “the president should act on his authority, the way Israel acts, enforce red lines and get in and out quietly.”
“If the opposition is completely victorious, it would be a huge victory for radical Islam, which could lead to a civil war between jihadists and Muslim Brotherhood- type groups, he said.
Instead of focusing on toppling Assad, the US should focus its energies on bringing down Iran, he concluded.
Charles Lister, a London-based analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, agrees with Spyer on much of the Syrian opposition.
Many of the groups that some in the West consider as moderate say that they are not against a voting system, but qualify that by adding the condition that only a Sunni should hold office or that a Christian leader should not be allowed.
He said that some of the larger groups within the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front coalition may eventually move in a more radical direction if Assad falls.
Some rebel groups are secular, but it is dangerous to present to politicians that the majority are, since in reality the majority is made up of more Muslim Brotherhood-type groups. They are more moderate than the radical al-Qaida-like groups, but certainly Islamists, said Lister.
The situation now is one where these groups’ interests make them cooperate with whoever they can for the benefit of opposing Assad, he added. “It is unfortunately inevitable that conflict will break out if Assad falls; there are too many groups with different interests, and there is no way that a group like al- Nusra are going to allow a Western-backed democratic state to be established.”