Throughout most of the civil war in Syria, Israel has maintained a more or less consistent policy. Now, in light of the Assad regime’s successes, assisted by Russia and Iran, Israel’s approach to events in Syria seems about to change. The change will not be translated into military action, but it is clear that the progress of the regime and its supporters, coupled with a lack of initiative by Western countries, are sources of concern and criticism in Jerusalem.
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So far, while paying lip service publicly to the suffering of the Syrian people in the civil war, which next month will have been raging for five years, Israel has not come out for any side and has kept its involvement to a relative minimum, focusing on defending interests it regards as essential.
Israel has pledged to respond militarily to any attack on its territory (and did so on a number of occasions). It also said it would act to stop the smuggling of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon (and according to foreign media reports, has indeed done so on numerous occasions). Israel also offered humanitarian aid to villages on the Syrian side of the border in the Golan Heights. In exchange, local rebel Sunni militias have kept extremist organizations that could attack Israel away from the areas under their control.
In fact, the war in Syria has largely served Israel’s interests. The ongoing fighting has worn down the Syrian army to a shadow of its former capabilities. Almost all of President Bashar Assad’s huge store of chemical weapons has been dismantled following an American-Russian arrangement forced on the Syrian dictator in the summer of 2013.
And Hezbollah, Israel’s main adversary in the north, has invested a quarter to a third of its manpower in fighting for the Syrian regime, and is losing dozens of fighters every month in battle. Official spokespeople do not say this publicly – there are things one cannot say when 470,000 people (according to recent accepted figures) are being massacred across the border – but Israel has been quietly wishing success to both sides and would not have been against the bloodletting continuing for a few more years without a clear victor.
The change in Syria came with the arrival of Russian aircraft to Assad’s aid in late August 2015 and the launching of heavy bombings a month later. Russian bombings are exhausting the rebels and allowing Syrian army forces, assisted by Shi’ite militias, to almost completely surround Aleppo in northern Syria, move closer to Dar’aa in the south and apparently also help in a renewed assault on the Idlib region in the northwest. According to testimony from Syria, the town of Sheikh Maskin near Dar’aa, which the Syrian army took over a few weeks ago, has been almost razed by the bombings.
But three understandings are emerging as Israel updates its positions in light of developments: First, an Assad victory would be bad for Israel because it would also mean victory for Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Second, despite the heavy Russian bombings and internal disagreements in its ranks, the Syrian opposition is far from vanquished. The third is that the West must rouse itself from its inaction and try to send real military aid to what Israeli security officials describe as a kind of third force, the less extreme Sunni rebels and the Kurdish militias, so they, too, will stand up against the regime as well as against the Islamic State.
Israel would consider an Assad victory a bad option because it would strengthen Iran, whose standing has already improved since the nuclear agreement in Vienna in July, lifting of sanctions and relative warming of ties between Tehran and the West. The regime’s takeover of southern Syria, especially the border of the Golan Heights, 90 percent of which is under rebel control, would once again create a line of contact with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syrian territory.
Although intelligence predictions are not uniform, Israel’s security leaders tend to assume that it is too early to declare an Assad victory. The main conclusion is that the regime has stabilized and the likelihood that it will fall, as long as Russia is providing such extensive military assistance, has declined greatly.
The West has not formulated a clear strategy in light of Russian military intervention in Syria and is focusing on two defensive objectives – stopping the wave of refugees to Europe and preventing additional terror attacks by Sunni jihadist groups in Western countries. Although American efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria have borne some fruit, Washington and Europe are helpless in light of Assad’s improved position.
Israel’s position is that not only is there still something to be done in Syria, but that this involvement is essential to allow the less extremist groups to survive, to stop the regime’s progress and the rise in Iran’s standing.