This piece is part of the Global Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict series, in which Carnegie experts from all over the world analyze the strategic and geopolitical interests at play in the ongoing civil war. View the full series here.
Israel’s strategy toward the Syrian conflict has been rather opaque, with Israeli officials maintaining an unusually low profile on the issue since the onset of the civil war. Only a handful of authoritative official statements have been made on the issue during this period, and even these have been largely enigmatic on the broader issues concerned, usually confined to a single topic—namely, Syrian strategic arms transfers to Hezbollah. Furthermore, Israel has made no active effort to be part of the Geneva diplomatic process.
This general opaqueness and passivity is rather remarkable given the extent to which Israeli core interests could be affected by any outcome of the Syrian civil war as well as its general proclivity to forcefully articulate its views and recommendations. One should not read into this timidity that Israel is generally agnostic about the outcome, though. Rather, it is essentially overwhelmed by the complexity of values, interests, and dilemmas it faces as a result of the Syrian civil war.
Since their short but fierce 1973 war, Israel has viewed Syria—and the Assad regime in particular—as a serious military threat and as a tough, ruthless, and potentially ideal peace partner because it would demand much for peace but would also be able to deliver on its commitments. Throughout the last four decades, the two nations have gone through several cycles of bilateral peace negotiations and indirect military frictions while also engaging in a bilateral arms race as well as competition for influence in Lebanon. Yet during this entire period the Israeli-Syrian border remained calm and secure.
In recent years, however, this tranquility has gradually begun to unravel—even prior to the onset of the Syrian civil war. First came the collapse of the last round of bilateral peace negotiations facilitated by Turkey, following the 2006 war in Lebanon. A Syrian attempt to secretly acquire nuclear weapons with massive North Korean assistance was foiled in 2007 by a military attack widely attributed to Israel. Subsequently, massive Syrian (and Iranian via Syria) assistance was provided to Hezbollah (which is ongoing) and extremist Palestinian factions fought Israel, followed by a series of high-profile, though unattributed, targeted killings of prominent Hezbollah and Palestinian extremists in Damascus.
The Syrian civil war has confronted Israel with several acute dilemmas. The first regards Israel’s preferred outcome. Its historic hostility toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been met with the consideration that he is the devil Israel knows (and with whom Israel has largely managed to cope), whereas his rivals are an utterly unknown commodity.
A second dilemma regards Israel’s revulsion at the atrocities Assad has regularly committed against his own population, partially offset by the growing perception that the brutality of some of the radical Islamic factions involved in the fighting has also known few limits.
A third is rooted in anxiety about the risks posed by the potential success of a radical Islamist opposition in Syria that could turn against Israel once it consolidates power. This concern is balanced by the fear that a victory for Assad—who is heavily dependent on Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shias—could significantly embolden this unholy alliance’s effort to take on Israel.
A fourth dilemma is rooted in the concern that an inconclusive, drawn-out conflict in Syria would exact a huge humanitarian toll and increasingly adversely affect stability in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan (both crucial for Israel) but at the same time would largely limit the fighting of all the warring participants to Syrian soil, thereby exhausting them and weakening their capabilities to do Israel harm.
A fifth dilemma centers on Hezbollah’s role in Syria. Its extensive fighting (at Iranian urging) in recent months in Syria in support of the Assad regime has clearly been diverting Hezbollah’s attention away from Israel, bleeding the organization of resources and exposing its flanks in Lebanon. Yet it has also been earning Hezbollah valuable combat experience as well as concrete monetary and especially military rewards for the services rendered that could later be used against Israel.
Factoring in the broader regional and international aspects of the Syrian conflict has added a sixth dilemma for Israel. Whereas Israel’s overwhelming preference has always been to side with the United States and the West, taking such an overt position in Syria would have risked alienating Russia—one of Assad’s principal international benefactors. In response, Russia might have retaliated against core Israeli interests in Syria or with regard to Iran, or even by taking action in Russia.
Finally, there has been a tension between the temptation for Israel to take advantage of the chaos wrought by the civil war to try to influence the outcome and the sobering realization that Israel’s track record in such efforts has been dismal. Further, the choice of whether to intervene on the side of the regime or the opposition has been anything but obvious (and has become even less so as time wears on), additionally complicated by the fact that an alliance with Israel could potentially hurt more than help its Syrian beneficiaries.
In response to the open-ended civil war and the vexing policy dilemmas it raises, the Israeli government has essentially decided to take a backseat toward the conflict, adopting a largely timid posture both diplomatically and operationally. Publicly, Israel has largely confined its official pronouncements to cautionary deterrence statements, warning all sides to refrain from directly challenging Israeli interests or territory.
In practical terms, Israel has essentially confined its intervention to two complementary areas. First, it has been extending humanitarian relief (mainly medical care in Israeli hospitals) to those who are casualties of the war. Second, Israel is widely believed to have selectively resorted to a few low-profile (for which it is determined to take no public credit) surgical air strikes directed particularly against destabilizing weapons systems transfers from Syria to Hezbollah. In parallel, Israel has significantly bolstered its defensive military presence in the Golan Heights to prevent a spillover of the internal fighting in Syria (already rampant in the bilateral border area) into Israel.
The sole other area where Israel has taken a somewhat more assertive position in the Syrian civil war has been in response to the repeated use of chemical agents by the Syrian regime. Israeli officials have repeatedly briefed their foreign counterparts, as well as the press, about such transgressions, and Israeli officials seem to have quietly encouraged the United States not to let such deeds go unpunished. Although pleased with the ensuing Syrian commitment to chemical weapons disarmament, Israeli officials have nevertheless been underwhelmed by the pace and scope of the disarmament process itself and disappointed with the weakness of the ultimate U.S. response (despite initial fears of Syrian retaliation against Israel in the event of a U.S. strike).
Beyond that, Israel has been quietly supportive of efforts to help Jordan grapple with the massive refugee influx into its territory.
The current constellation of forces in Syria may well portend an open-ended, inconclusive, drawn-out civil war, and less likely the reconsolidation of Assad’s control, the emergence of a radical Islamic regime, or the final disintegration of Syria. The latter prospect could possibly engulf all of Syria’s neighbors—greatly impacting, for example, Lebanon and Israel by scaring away the UN peacekeeping force from Lebanon and turning it once again into a staging area for hostile action against Israel.
Israel sees few real opportunities for advancing its interests in any of these scenarios. Consequently, its primary preoccupation is with preventing, and if need be mitigating, the possible spillover of the Syrian civil war or its consequences into Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. Israel is acutely concerned that one or more parties to the civil war could try to draw Israel in or somehow trick it into getting involved in the conflict. And it is as a result bent on preventing Lebanese soil from becoming a launching platform for aggression (or support for violence) against Israel.
Looking ahead, Israel has to contend with one more worrisome prospect that could materialize in the course of 2014: a nuclear deal with Iran that would bolster Iran’s stature, diminish the sanctions regime against it, and provide it with greater legitimacy and freer hands to meddle in Syrian-Lebanese affairs.