Arab Rapprochement With Syria’s Assad Works for Israel Too

The leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the UAE are more concerned with stabilizing Syria and trying to minimize Iran’s influence there than rehabilitating President Bashar Assad. Israel's view isn't very different

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Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad holding up national flags and pictures of Assad as they celebrate in Damascus, Syria, last May.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad holding up national flags and pictures of Assad as they celebrate in Damascus, Syria, last May.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In recent weeks, senior representatives of Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have been meeting with their Syrian counterparts and even visiting Damascus. President Bashar Assad is still persona non grata in the Arab capitals, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But his regime, after long years of isolation during the Syrian civil war, is slowly being brought in from the cold.

Interestingly, the countries taking the lead on this, on behalf of the rest of the Arab League, are those with whom Israel has increasingly strong security and even diplomatic ties.

The Arab rapprochement has not been met with any response from Israel, at least not in public. In private, senior Israeli officials are rather blasé about it. Off the record, they express hope that this will at least serve as a counterpoint to Iranian influence in Syria. The Israeli attitude should not come as a surprise.

At no point in the 10 years of the Syrian civil war did Israel decisively intervene. In fact, early on in the war, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counseled in his meetings with Western leaders against supplying the rebels with advanced weapons, especially not anti-aircraft missiles, which he was concerned would fall into the wrong hands and be used against Israeli aircraft.

Israel did supply small quantities of light weaponry – along with medical aid and food supplies – to rebel groups in the Golan Heights. But this was mainly to ensure that the area near Israel’s border didn’t become an ISIS enclave.

In the early years of the past decade, when at various points of the Syrian civil war it seemed Assad’s future was perilous, there were some serious voices within the Israeli security establishment who argued that Israel should take the opportunity and hasten his demise. There was both a strategic and moral argument: That Israel should not stand aside while, just across the border, a bloodthirsty dictator was butchering hundreds of thousands of civilians.

While no one called for a direct hit against the heart of the regime, there were other courses of action being advocated. One was for the creation of a wide “humanitarian corridor,” or “no-fly zone,” on Israel’s Golan border, in which civilians would be protected from Assad’s forces and ISIS, by Israeli air power.

Another suggestion, one that was even voiced publicly by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, was that Israel launch airstrikes to destroy the Syrian Air Force’s attack jets and helicopters that were being used to bombard civilian areas.

Netanyahu swatted all these suggestions away. He was insistent that Israel was not going to get sucked into the Syrian tragedy, and that the focus would remain on Iranian-linked targets alone. Regime bases would be hit only if they were hosting Iranian Quds Force elements or being used to store weapons meant for Hezbollah.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaking with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, in Damascus last week.Credit: /AP

Anyway, the debate in Israel on what to do about Assad became irrelevant on September 30, 2015, when the Russian Air Force carried out its first airstrike against Syrian rebels as part of its successful campaign to save the Assad regime.

From the moment the first Russian Sukhoi fighter jet landed at Khmeimim air base near Latakia, Assad had the umbrella of a superpower. Since the Obama administration had already made clear two years earlier that no matter how many Syrian civilians Assad murdered with chemical weapons, the United States was not going to intervene, Israel had no choice but to make its accommodations with Russia. Within days, Netanyahu was on a plane to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

The deal with the Russians was clear: Their Syrian client would not be touched as long as Israel would continue to have free rein to attack Iranian targets. Putin was and remains fine with this arrangement.

The Iranians may have provided the pro-Assad cause with cannon fodder in the shape of tens of thousands of poor Shi’ite militiamen from Iraq and Afghanistan that Iran flew over to fight and die in Syria, but Putin didn’t want them to take over Syria either. He was perfectly happy to see Israel curbing their aspirations.

But the bottom line remains that Israel acquiesced, early on, to Assad remaining in power. In fact, a weakened and discredited dictator in Damascus is the preferable option for Israel. In an alternative and rather unlikely outcome in which the rebels had succeeded and a new, less radical regime had taken power, Israel would have come under renewed pressure to retreat from the Golan Heights. Assad is untouchable now outside the region, so no one is going to support his claim to the land now.

And having Assad in control is also preferable to the other, more likely alternative, which would have been Syria becoming a chaotic no-man’s-land and a base for ISIS. That is the same calculation being made by Israel’s Arab allies.

There is a recent precedent for this. The Sudanese regime of President Omar al-Bashir was as bloodstained as Assad’s, but it was received back into the Sunni Arab fold once it agreed to cut ties with Iran, which used its territory for the smuggling of weapons. Saudi financial aid and quiet Israeli and U.S. support assured that transition. Bashir was later deposed and put on trial, but that wasn’t a precondition.

By rights, Assad should be in The Hague, sitting in the dock of the International Criminal Court, facing multiple counts of genocide. Thanks to Putin and the Iranian leadership, that’s not going to happen. The leaders of Jordan and the UAE know this and are more concerned now with stabilizing part of the Arab world and trying to minimize Iran’s influence there.

This is not about rehabilitating Assad. That will never happen. It is about safeguarding the pragmatic and cynical interests of Sunni Arab regimes. And in this case, they coincide with Israel’s as well.

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