Syria intervention

Without foreign intervention, the chance that Assad will manage to overcome the rebels improves.

Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370 (photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370
(photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the beginning of the month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed that they both supported the call by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA, to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.
US President Barack Obama opted not to listen to their advice. But even if Obama had not decided to overrule these advisers and had intervened, it is difficult to imagine positive outcomes from such an endeavor – particularly from Israel’s point of view.
With or without foreign intervention, fighting in Syria between forces led by Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite regime and the predominantly Sunni opposition forces is unlikely to end with a stable partition of the country along ethnic, sectarian lines. A fight to the death seems to be playing itself out and after nearly two years of conflict, no clear victor has emerged.
From both an Israeli and a humanitarian perspective, neither an Alawite nor a Sunni victory would be desirable.
The fighting in Syria is essentially another chapter in the age-old Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the opposition forces and Shi’ite Iran backing Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
Without foreign intervention, the chance that Assad will manage to overcome the rebels improves. In the case of such a victory, the Alawite-Shi’ite axis would emerge strengthened and Iran – which has been providing arms, troops and tactical support to Assad – would be emboldened to continue to pursue its interests in Iraq and Bahrain, two countries with Shi’ite majorities, and in Yemen, Kuwait and Afghanistan, where there are large Shi’ite minorities. The Islamic Republic would also continue to foment hostility toward the Jewish state via Hezbollah, its Shi’ite proxy in southern Lebanon.
Still, an Alawite-Shi’ite victory is not necessary the worst scenario for Israel. Assad and his father do have a 40-year track record of keeping the border with Israel quiet.
In contrast, the violent ousting of Assad’s regime, while dealing a serious blow to the Islamic Republic’s ambitions in the region– including its nuclear threat – would lead to the rise of yet another Muslim Brotherhood aligned regime. Scarred by the memories of the Assad family’s repression of Sunnis – including the 1982 Hama massacre of at least 10,000 Brotherhood supporters, men, women and their children – the rise of a Sunni leadership would inevitably lead to widespread revenge killings of Syria’s minority groups – Alawites, Druse, Christians and Kurds – who make up the core of Assad’s supporters. Nor would a Muslim Brotherhood leadership be more disposed to improving relations with Israel – just look at the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas regime in Gaza and Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt.
Without any major foreign intervention, a continuation of the conflict is likely. Though it perpetuates the humanitarian disaster, non-intervention might reduce the chances of an attack on Israel since Assad’s forces, the Hezbollah and Iranian troops, would be focused on defeating the opposition and would not be interested in opening a new front with Israel. But even that is not certain.
As Syria disintegrates into anarchy, the country could very well be transformed into a breeding ground for jihadists, uncontrolled chemical weapons and advanced Russian-made surface-to-air missiles that, if transferred to Hezbollah in south Lebanon, could seriously compromise Israel’s air superiority.
At the same time, Israel cannot rule out the possibility that Syria and Hezbollah will initiate a limited confrontation with Israel, in an attempt to redirect attention away from the sectarian bloodshed in Syrian to the “Zionist entity.” Doing so would help Damascus find a common cause with jihadists.
That is why Israel has no interest in provoking Assad or intervening in the civil war raging there. At the same time, Israel but must do everything possible to protect its borders and prevent the flow of arms – both conventional and unconventional – from Syria to south Lebanon.
Under the circumstances, Panetta, Dempsey and other advocates of intervention might want to reserve the right to say “I told you so” if the Assad regime survives – but the benefits of intervention should not be overrated.