What will happen in Syria? The answer to that question holds immense significance for Israel. Yet, preoccupied with Iran's nuclear program, Israel is neglecting the more immediate threat to its security that's crystalizing on the other side of the Golan Heights. What began as a limited but genuine people's uprising against a kleptocratic dictatorship has now been overtaken by a Saudi-backed project to destabilize Syria.
Bashar Assad, like his father Hafez, was never a friend of Israel's - but nor was his worldview shaped exclusively by antagonism toward the Jewish State. The foreign fighters seeking his ouster, on the other hand, receive sustenance from a medieval theocracy that, in the words of John R. Bradley, a preeminent Middle East expert who predicted the Egyptian revolution as early as 2009, "spews out a kind of anti-Semitic hatred not known since the Nazis."
The results of Saudi Arabia's tireless efforts were on display in Al-Midan, a suburb in southern Damascus where I recently interviewed rebel fighters. Mateen, a fighter who claimed to have traveled from Afghanistan, shared his ideas for Syria's future after ridding it of the Assad dynasty.
"We have to build a society of respect and brotherhood in accordance with the Prophet's commandments," he told me in Urdu. "We will treat non-Muslims kindly, but we have a big fight against the Jews ahead of us. We will take that up, God willing." This manifesto for the future was identical - almost word for word - to what Yahya Mujahid, a senior leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based outfit charged with carrying out the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, told me in Lahore in 2009: that the LeT would take up the "fight" with the Jews after "liberating" Kashmir from Indian rule. One was a Kashmiri, the other a Pashtun; neither had met a Jew in his life. But both were united by a deep hatred, completely alien to their richly syncretic native cultures, exported by a distant Wahhabi monarchy that has suffused countless young minds in Islamic seminaries across South Asia with a fervor for jihad against non-Muslims.
This evangelical effort is now being replicated on an even more ambitious scale in Syria. The result is that a once-pluralistic society has descended into sectarian chaos. In the province of Homs alone, rebel fighters have driven some 80,000 Christians out of their homes. The opposition fighters have even carried out beheadings, a phenomenon unknown to Syrians. Young Shi'ite and Christian women, who mix freely with men in Damascus, told me they had to cover their faces and assume fake Sunni identities when traveling through rebel-held areas.
The man currently being groomed by Saudi Arabia as a possible replacement for Assad is Manaf Tlass, a high-ranking official in the Syrian army and a once-close friend of Assad's, who fled Syria in July with the help of French intelligence. Tlass has now adopted the vocabulary of the "moderate," but his family history should be of concern to Israelis. Tlass' father, Mustafa, a former Sunni defense minister who wielded tremendous clout under Hafez Assad, is something of a scholar. I came across one of his best-sellers, "The Matzah of Zion," in Damascus this summer. Complete with a lurid cover depicting ravenous Jews draining the blood of a Christian priest into a large bowl, the book attempts to revive the blood libel.
None of this has prevented some Western friends of Israel from advocating American intervention in Syria as a means to weakening Iran's influence in the region. Deposing Assad, former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin argued in Foreign Policy in June, would "help Israel and help reduce the risk of a far more dangerous war between Israel and Iran."
Israel should be wary of its overzealous friends. Damascus has certainly played a deeply corrosive role in its neighborhood, turning Syria into a haven for Hezbollah. Still, as Israel's former ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, wrote in 2006, Syria's alliance with Iran was never absolute, and a peace deal between Tel Aviv and Damascus was not impossible. On a state visit to New Delhi in 2008, Assad admitted to Indian officials that arriving at an enduring settlement with Israel was his topmost priority.
Even if Assad were to succeed in suppressing the opposition, he would find it impossible to unify the country. Regardless of the outcome of this war, the prospect of an Israeli settlement with Syria looks dead for now. But the likelihood of conflict for Israel can only increase if the clamor in the West to arm and fund the Syrian opposition is not countered. This is a crisis engineered by Saudi Arabia - and, despite outward appearances, Israel should not overlook Riyadh's enduring role as the purveyor of the most noxious anti-Israeli ideologies in the Muslim world. A proliferation of Saudi dependencies in the region, even if they serve the purpose of weakening Iran in the short term, will pose severe dangers to Israel's security in the future.
We have been here before - most glaringly in the 1980s, when the prospect of humiliating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan trumped every concern about arming the Taliban. Israel must now ensure that its best allies in the West don't end up creating a launching pad for the most implacably anti-Israeli Islamists who have congregated in Syria. Otherwise, as John R. Bradley recently warned in Britain's Jewish Chronicle, Israel may find itself "confronting an even more determined, uncontrollable and fanatical enemy than the Assad regime has ever proved to be."
Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
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