Israel Tones Down Opposition to Western Arming of Syrian Rebels

Change in attitude stems from desire to weaken Hezbollah and pro-Iran forces taking part in the Syrian conflict.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel has in recent weeks scaled back its opposition to the arming of rebels in Syria, due to concern that their weakened position could lead to greater victories for Hezbollah and other Iran supporters fighting alongside the forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Until recently, Israeli officials had cautioned their international counterparts against arming the Syrian rebels, warning that arms – and especially advanced weapons systems – could reach jihadist groups that are affiliated with al-Qaida, and could be used against Israel in the future. Israel mainly sent these warnings to the U.S. administration and to the British and French governments, which have been spearheading efforts within the European Union to end the arms embargo on all sides in the Syrian war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised similar concerns when he met British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to London two and a half months ago for Margaret Thatcher's funeral.

The Obama administration decided in the last two months to provide support, including arms, to the Syrian rebels, after verifying reports that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons. Thanks to British and French pressure on the issue, the EU, meanwhile, has decided not to renew the arms embargo when it expires next month.

At the same time, Israel has toned down its objections to arming the rebels, mainly due to the increased and conspicuous involvement of Hezbollah and other Shia groups, supported by Iran, in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah forces played a key role in capturing the strategic town of Qusair last month, and Hezbollah fighters along with Shia volunteers from Iraq are currently fighting in the battle of Aleppo.

Israeli officials believe that the Syrian civil war is far from over and that victory is not assured for either side. There is concern about the appearance of victory for the pro-Iranian camp and a growing belief that Assad has decided to throw in his lot with the radical axis.

Assad who was once seen as a moderating influence, ensuring calm on the Syria-Lebanon border, now appears to be interested in encouraging terror attacks on Israel, Israeli officials conclude. For now, though, he is not expected to allow regular units of the Syrian army to participate in such attacks. Another major concern is that the continued success of pro-Iranian forces in Syria without a response from the West will embolden Iran to forge ahead with its nuclear program despite international pressure and sanctions.

In recent meetings between Israeli officials and their Western counterparts, the Israeli attitude toward the latter supplying the rebels with arm was more positive. Israel is also more accepting of continued supplies from Gulf nations that are also concerned about growing Iranian influence in the region and are eager to support the Sunni rebels. At the same time, Israelis are still cautioning about advanced weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles, reaching jihadist groups.

Syrian rebels running during heavy clashes with Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.Credit: AP

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