The Slippery Slope in Syria

Netanyahu owes citizens an explanation of his policy toward Syria and its Iranian allies, before he drags Israel into an unnecessary war

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding the piece of Iranian drone, at the Munich Security Conference, February 18, 2018.

The Iranian horror show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented this week at the Munich Security Conference, and which he illustrated with a piece of metal that presumably came from the Iranian drone shot down in the Beit She’an Valley, should rouse concern in Israel. This isn’t so much because of the threat itself, which has become a fundamental axiom of Israel’s security doctrine, but because of the way decisions are being made.

This time, Netanyahu decided to directly threaten Iran, rather than only its agents, by making it unequivocally clear that Israel will not allow Iran to consolidate its presence in Syria. But Netanyahu isn’t telling the Israeli public what this strategy means.

Does Israel seriously intend to go to war in Syria to prevent an Iranian presence there, or only to carry out focused, limited operations? Does it think such a confrontation might lead to a confrontation with Russia? Does Israel have the American backing that would guarantee it an active military partnership in the Syrian theater? How is Iran expected to respond? Will Iranian missiles fall on Israeli population centers? And above all, is violent conflict the only option Israel has? Netanyahu, who portrays himself as being concerned with “life itself,” has a duty to answer these questions before he embroils Israel in an unnecessary war.

The presence on its borders of forces that are hostile to Israel is nothing new. Throughout its existence, Israel has adhered to the doctrine that it is “a small country surrounded by enemies.” Some of those enemies have since become allies, such as Jordan and Egypt. Others have ceased to threaten Israel and even have unofficial relations with it. And others are still presumed to be threatening enemies, but even they aren’t considered an existential threat to the state. Iran is indisputably a country that could potentially pose a real threat to Israel, but going to war against it in Syria would be a dangerous move.

Israel has recently become more active on the Israeli-Syrian border, not just in the air but also on the ground, in response to the Assad regime’s growing strength in southern Syria and the army’s assessment that sooner or later, the regime will make an effort to regain control of the Golan Heights. According to foreign reports, Israel has recently been giving not just civilian aid to villages in the Syrian Golan Heights, but also military aid to seven Sunni Muslim rebel organizations.

For now, Israel seems to be focusing on trying to halt the progress of the Syrian forces and their Iranian allies. But this could become the beginning of a long entanglement in a complex war theater. Israel must avoid this, lest it become a regional threat itself.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.