As the regional economic powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting the rebels, while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Assad’s regime, another regional player increasingly looks over the fence towards Syria: Israel. Consumed by the desire to ensure the security of her citizens and the inviolability of her borders, Israel sees herself confronted with the question of how the upheavals in Syria might lastingly alter the power equilibrium in the Levant. With few means available to directly shape events on the ground, Israel’s intelligence and defence community is debating what possible outcome in this regional sectarian struggle might benefit Israel’s mid and long-term security the most. Speaking and listening to Israeli policy makers, military leaders and journalists over the past few months, I feel that the internal Israeli debate has revolved exclusively around two potential outcomes of the Syrian Civil War: in one scenario it is the Sunni-led rebellion that evolves from the conflict victoriously and in the other scenario, it is the Shiite Bloc consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that maintains the upper hand in this civil war. However, I think there is a third scenario that should be considered by Israel, which does not leave the Jewish state stuck between a rock and a hard place. Let’s start by looking at the first two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Scenario one seems to reflect the preferred outcome for most of the Friends of Syria: a military victory of the Free Syrian Army and affiliated rebel groups culminating in the ousting of President Assad. For Israel this scenario has obvious benefits as well. With a Sunni majority government in place, the Shiite Bloc extending from Iran over Al Maliki’s Iraq to Syria and Southern Lebanon, would be cut in half, creating a logistical and ideological disconnect between Hezbollah and Iran. Bearing in mind that Iran and her local proxy Hezbollah are considered by Israeli leaders to be the most dangerous threat to Israel’s security and integrity, the lapse of Syria as a transfer and shipment site for Iranian weaponry would be conducive to Israel’s security. However, this scenario also bears a considerable risk. As many of the Syrian rebel movements have united under the banner of Prophet Mohammad’s seal, it is worth taking a closer look at those fighting for ‘freedom’ and against oppression in Syria. Many of those rebels waving the Prophet’s banner have joined the ranks of Mujahedeen pursuing a questionable pan-Islamic salafist agenda, which as recently stated by the Al-Nusrah Front, aims at establishing with the help of other jihadist groups, a Sunni Caliphate not within the borders of Syria but across the Levant. The dangers of such forces becoming involved in a post-Assad socio-political state building process are obvious; particularly from an Israeli point of view. With power shifting from a secular Ba’athist regime to a religious salafist regime, Israel fears that Syria might become the new breeding ground for Islamist opposition against the Jewish state. Able to exchange money, ideologies, weaponry and fighters with jihadist movements in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Sunni jihadist movements in Syria would be able to not only crush local non-Sunni sects (Shiites, Alewites, Druzes and Christians) but also build a local power base in an effort to challenge Israel’s presence in the Golan and Palestine at large. Even if jihadist movements were not to be invited by a transitional government to participate in the socio-political state building process, it would be very difficult for a moderate salafist regime in Damascus to properly contain domestic jihadist activities. Similar to Libya, those jihadists excluded from the state building process would be left unoccupied and unsupervised in a phase of power transition in a country that holds the world’s largest arsenal of unconventional bio/chemical weapons. Hence, this scenario should not only give Israel cause for serious concern but also make Britain and France ask themselves whether arming the Sunni rebellion might achieve a desirable outcome.
Scenario 2: The second scenario, although arguably the least likely, predicts a consolidation of the Shiite Bloc’s power, whereby Assad’s regime with the support of its allies would be able to galvanize its control of Southern Syria and Lebanon, maintaining the Shiite lifeline extending from Teheran to Southern Lebanon. Since the Assad family has been committed to the maintenance of the cold peace with Israel on the Golan for more than thirty years, this scenario might at first sight promise to keep Israel’s northern frontier quiet. Yet, an enhanced collaboration and cooperation between Assad’s regime and Hezbollah in an existential struggle for both parties’ survival would arguably bear the risk of an increased sharing of technology and weaponry. In particular, the prospect of Russian-made SA-17s, S-300s or P-800 Oniks being shipped from Damascus to Southern Lebanon might give Israeli leaders sleepless nights. The highly mobile and capable SA-17 and S-300 air defence systems could become a game changer on their own in a future escalation of violence between Hezbollah and Israel. Depriving the Israeli Air Force of its ability to create control of the air and subsequently engage mobile missile launching sites would severely undermine Israel’s chances to protect her citizens from Hezbollah’s more than 70,000 missiles directed towards Haifa, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. In view of the importance assigned to the Shiite militia’s conventional threat in Israeli defence and security planning, this scenario then, leaves little room for consolation – even if the proliferation of WMDs from Assad to Hezbollah appears to be highly unlikely (it arguably constitutes a major red line not just for Israel but for the international community at large).
Even so, I think that the potential outcomes of the Syrian Civil War hold more than the prospect of these two highly discomforting predicaments for Israel. Rather than being inevitably caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, I would suggest that Israel might be best served by a third scenario of short term anarchy and long term instability.
Scenario 3: The maintenance of the current status quo witnessing Assad’s forces being bogged down in a mutually painful battle of attrition with rebel forces, would grant Israel more breathing space on her northern border in the long run. Imagining the current stalemate continuing would mean that Hezbollah as a party to the conflict would be increasingly called upon to support an ever more fragile regime in Damascus with limited reach and leverage beyond the Syrian capital. Thereby, both Assad’s regime and Hezbollah would be further isolated diverting the latter’s attention away from its main struggle with Israel and other groups within Lebanon. At the same time Sunni rebel groups, both moderate and jihadist, would find themselves in a costly battle wearing down the moral and physical components of their fighting power; ultimately leading to a mid or long-term mutually painful stalemate between those supporting and those opposing Assad. I feel that in the long-run such a stalemate could pave the way for a power sharing agreement between members of the rebellion and moderate supporters of the old ruling elite, which under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and Qatar might facilitate a shaky socio-political recovery of Syria. Torn by domestic skirmishes and dependent on Saudi and Qatari benevolence, such a transitional government, favouring the Sunni majority, however not completely able to marginalize Syrian minorities, would constitute an ideal gatekeeper for Israel’s northern frontier. Breaking the Shiite Bloc apart and tamed by the wahabist ideologies of political Islam prevalent in the Persian Gulf, short term chaos and long-term instability would allow Israel to maintain her regional hegemony.
While scenario three would undoubtedly constitute the best of three challenging prospects for Israel, it is important to note that Israel is in no position to shape, leaving alone dictate, the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Therefore, for the moment Israel has to wait and see while limiting her kinetic actions so as not to tempt either Syria or Hezbollah to consider retaliatory strikes. Surgical strikes against arms shipments from Damascus to Southern Lebanon should be reserved for the exclusive case that the current balance of power in the Levant was to be critically endangered by the delivery of technological game changers. I would like to wrap this up by adding that equally, the West should refrain from getting any further involved in the conflict. How would the delivery of arms to the Sunni rebellion in an effort to bring about a first scenario outcome save lives or pave the road to long-term stability in Syria?