“Assad will be gone in weeks, perhaps even days,” predicted the ebullient veteran Israeli intelligence officer. It was October 2011 and the Syrian civil war that had begun seven months earlier with widespread protests calling for democracy had swiftly escalated to an armed insurgency, with large parts of the regime’s army defecting and forming the Free Syrian Army.
The unrest across the Middle East was still being called optimistically “the Arab Spring,” the long-serving presidents of Tunisia and Egypt had been toppled and in Libya, dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been murdered in the street by rebels. The departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the scene was both a realistic and highly satisfactory outcome.
One senior figure in the Israeli leadership felt otherwise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no sympathy for Assad Junior, but he was both skeptical of any assessment predicting his imminent downfall and worried about what would happen in Assad’s absence, if he should indeed be forced out. Netanyahu had never been enthusiastic about the Arab Spring, arguing during its early stages that after the spring would come an “Islamist winter.”
Netanyahu had unsuccessfully urged U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders to stick with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. He argued in his conversations with other leaders that the vacuum left by the Arab strongmen would be filled both by Iran and its proxies, and by Jihadists of Al-Qaida’s ilk. Some Western leaders supported shipping advanced weapons to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in Syria, Netanyahu counseled caution.
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While Obama was still referring to the Islamic State as “a JV (junior varsity) team,” Netanyahu was using every opportunity to urge his counterparts not to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels in Syria, worried those could fall into the hands of Jihadist groups that would use those missiles not only against Assad’s air force, but also against Israeli and Western aircraft. When he visited London in April 2013 for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, it was one of the main items on the agenda during his short meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
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Anti-Israel and pro-Iranian conspiracy theorists have tried to establish the narrative that Israel somehow had a hand in the foundation of ISIS. The truth is that while Netanyahu always saw Iran as a much bigger threat than ISIS, he was one of the first leaders to identify the significance of the rise of Islamic State in the power vacuum that had been created in Syria and Iraq.
Netanyahu modified his policy somewhat in 2014, when the villages on the Syrian Golan Heights were facing both Iranian-supported fighters and ISIS-aligned groups. Israel not only began offering medical and other humanitarian support to the villagers, but the local rebel groups received also light weapons to defend their villages. The rules were no weapons for Jihadists and no arms that could potentially threaten Israel should they fall into enemy hands.
For eight years of war in Syria, Netanyahu has pursued a ruthless and cynical policy regarding Israel’s northern neighbor. It has also been prescient and effective. While there were those among his military and intelligence advisors who were in favor of Israel taking sides against the Assad regime, Netanyahu insisted on remaining on the sidelines. That doesn’t mean he shied away from acting in Syria, quite the opposite, but Netanyahu’s red-lines prescribed exactly when Israel would act: Specifically against convoys, depots and research centers that were directly connected to supplying and developing Hezbollah with advanced weapons, as well as against Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to establish a presence near Israel’s frontier on the Golan.
Netanyahu was prepared to go much further in these attacks than some of his generals thought prudent. When in January 2015, Israel attacked a group of senior Hezbollah and Iranian officers near the border – killing among others its commanders in Syria, Jihad Mughniyeh and Mohamad Issa, as well as a general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – one IDF general observed that “we were on the brink of war.” But Netanyahu judged correctly that Iran was too invested in propping up the Assad regime to jeopardize that by escalating hostilities with Israel.
Netanyahu was also quick to detect that under Obama, and then Trump, the U.S. had relinquished any meaningful role in the Syrian arena, save for airstrikes on ISIS. He was prepared for the arrival of Russian forces in September 2015, and was in Moscow within days, establishing ground-rules with Vladimir Putin.
Once again, Netanyahu's generals were concerned that Russia’s presence would make it much more difficult for Israel to operate in Syria, but Netanyahu understood that Putin had no interest in helping Iran, just in ensuring his client Assad survived and regained control of his country.
That meant Israel would continue attacking Iran’s proxies in Syria, even in Damascus, which was under Russia’s air defense umbrella, but it was clear that it was only striking assets which could potentially threaten Israel, not the Shia militias which were fighting for Assad and providing Russia with “boots on the ground."
In 2017, when Iran, in addition to its support of Assad, also tried establishing long-term bases in Syria, Netanyahu green-lighted the IDF’s plan to strike not only at the proxies, but the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force bases, and in some cases its personnel as well. Once again, there were those who warned this would bring Israel into contention with Russia.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had some heated exchanges with his Russian counterparts, but that was all: Putin wouldn’t give his generals an order to block Israel’s operations. “Putin knows that Israel is the only regional force which can ruin his plans to keep Assad in power,” said one well-placed Russian source at the time. “He won’t take the risk of jeopardizing what he’s achieved in Syria just to shield Iran."
Netanyahu reached a clear understanding with the Russian president. As long as it still had a free hand to operate against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, Israel would not do anything to harm Assad’s survival, and would only fire on the regime’s forces if fired upon, as when Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were launched against Israeli fighter-jets. This freedom to act was imperative when it became clear that Russia did not have the power or the inclination to stop Iran from operating near Israel’s border. Israel upped its attacks on Iranian targets, carrying out hundreds of strikes in 2017-18. Iran tried to retaliate a number of times, but its armed drones and rockets were intercepted without causing any damage or casualties.
Iran is of course still very active in Syria, but it has failed to build the permanent bases it planned there. And Russia, despite the crisis over the shooting down of its spy plane by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, with the loss of fifteen men, in the aftermath of an Israeli strike, is still standing back, allowing Israel to conduct its business in Syria.
There has been criticism of Netanyahu’s Syria policy within the higher echelons of Israel’s military establishment. Some have called upon him to authorize strikes against regime aircraft that were involved in bombing Syrian civilians with barrel-bombs and chlorine gas. Former commander of military intelligence Amos Yadlin, openly called for an Israeli strike on all the regime’s helicopters as “a moral stance against killers who use weapons of mass murder against civilians.” He argued that “in this instance, Israel’s values and its strategic interests both point in that direction.” But Netanyahu insisted that Israel’s interest was to stick to its deal with the Russians and not to intervene in any way against the regime. Yadlin had the moral upper-ground, but Netanyahu’s decision was probably the correct one for Israel’s interests.
In mid-2018, when the Assad regime began reasserting its control over the Syrian Golan, under Russian auspices, Israel ended its humanitarian operation with the local villages. Appeals from local rebels saying that they would now suffer the regime’s retribution and the gathering of thousands of civilians near the border hoping that Israel would establish a safe-zone didn't change Netanyahu's mind. Netanyahu stuck by his ground rules of not intervening between Assad and the rebels.
Netanyahu doesn’t have many fans among the IDF General Staff, but on his Syrian record, they are near-unanimous in praise. The only criticism you can hear today is that in recent months he has been too quick to acknowledge Israel’s strikes, which in the past had been left unattributed. But that claim is hard to stick to Netanyahu, when Eisenkot himself spoke about the strikes openly in his the interviews he gave in January at the end of his term.
On a final note, complimenting Benjamin Netanyahu on any of his policies on the eve of an election, when he is mired in corruption indictments, legitimizing racism and undermining the country’s democratic institutions, is hardly an easy thing to do. But if he has one valid claim to remaining in office, it’s his Syria policy.