Why Israel Shouldn't Consider a 'Security Zone' in Syria

Israel's misadventures in Lebanon are casting long shadows over its options in responding to threatening developments in Syria.

With the chaos of the Syrian civil war escalating, tensions on the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the Golan Heights are running high. Israeli defense officials stated just over a week ago that they were expecting a complex terror attack on the Syrian front, though the identity of the would-be attackers was not discussed.

Israeli officials have also recently divulged that Israel had already taken a number of preventative measures, including the erection of a new electronic fence along the existing Israeli-Syrian line (announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the beginning of January) and the deployment of elite ground forces there.

A week before the terror threat statement, on February 3rd, the British Sunday Times reported that the IDF has drafted a plan to create a 16 kilometer-wide "security zone" on the Syrian side of the current ceasefire line on the Golan, presumably to enhance security on the Israeli side.

The term "security zone" has an all-too-familiar ring, as it recalls the similar concept Israel employed in Lebanon between 1985 and 2000. The situation in Lebanon at the time was comparable in some respects to the scenario Israel currently fears developing on the Syrian front: It was a civil war in a neighboring Arab country that spilled into a security threat to Israel's north. 

But these two challenges – Lebanon and Syria – are not identical. For one, the Lebanon arena of the 1980s and 1990s never included the type of weaponry that could still plausibly be used on the Syrian front. Further, Israel's 15 year-long deployment in the "security zone" should give us reason to pause, before Israel rushes to create a new one in Syria.

Most of all, it is far from clear if the "security zone" in Lebanon was indeed necessary. At least from the early 1990s, if not earlier, Israel's main foe in Lebanon was Hezbollah, and not the Palestinian organizations that had triggered Israel's initial drive into Lebanon. Hezbollah, unlike the Palestinians, did not try to infiltrate Israeli territory but rather focused its efforts on the Israeli military personnel deployed in Lebanon.

This is an important difference, because the "security zone" was designed primarily to defend against possible infiltrations into Israel, but it was maintained at the cost of some 20 Israeli fatalities a year on average, even when no infiltrations were attempted. Indeed, to date, Israel's defensive posture against Hezbollah is based on deterrence, not on an actual presence in Lebanese territory.

The second cautionary note from Israel's 1985-2000 "security zone" experience in Lebanon is that it benefitted Hezbollah far more than it assisted Israel. The organization gained legitimacy, status, and power in the domestic Lebanese political arena, by portraying itself as the only true opposition to the Israeli presence in South Lebanon. By the time Israeli forces left Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah had become the most dominant organization in Lebanon with its own "state within a state" apparatus.

Less than two decades earlier, when Israeli forces crossed into Lebanon, Hezbollah did not even exist; in effect, Israel created the rationale for a resistance movement to its occupation of Lebanese land.

The comparison to today's situation is clear: If Israel has direct military engagements with the global jihad forces, such as al-Qaida offshoots active on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, Israel's actions might once again indirectly lead to the creation of an effective and highly motivated opponent, such as it has not yet faced in earnest on this front until now.

The third lesson to consider is the broad strategic outlook for Israel. By helping Hezbollah, indirectly, to build itself in Lebanon, Israel handed Iran a real lever over Jerusalem's freedom of action. Various reports indicated that in calculating possible moves against the Iranian nuclear program, Jerusalem is affected by the possibility that Hezbollah will shell Israeli territory as it did in the 2006 war. We cannot anticipate now, who might face Israel in Syria, but we should consider the effects of this possible friction on Israel's future freedom of action.

All this is not to say that the challenges on the Golan should be treated lightly. Israel may indeed face new threats in the wake of the demise of the Assad regime in Syria and will need to deal with them. Yet, as Israel learned painfully in Lebanon, some solutions merely lead to new, and more menacing, threats. A solution based on a "security zone" in all likelihood falls into this category.

Dr. Ehud Eiran teaches international relations at the University of Haifa and is a task-team member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. His book "The Essence of Longing: General Erez Gerstein and Israel's War in Lebanon" was published in 2007.  

This article is part of the “Opportunities in Change” project of Mitvim in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. It is based on a full paper that can be read here.

AFP