A version of this article was published in The Arab Weekly
Israel has been conflicted on the Syrian rebellion: some saw Bashar al-Assad’s reliance on Iran and thus favoured his departure; some, especially once the uprising militarized and jihadi-Salafists made their appearance among the insurgents, favoured a let-them-both-lose policy; and some saw the risk of chaos and jihadists and preferred to stick with what they knew.
The official Israeli policy, stated in the early months of the protests, was to side with the people “demonstrating for freedoms” since “the devil we know in Syria [i.e. Assad] is worse than the devil we don’t”.
Since that time, Israel has initiated Operation GOOD NEIGHBOUR that has supplied humanitarian assistance and medical treatment to thousands of Syrians. Israel has simultaneously carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Assad and Iran, destroying weapons depots and other security threats. Israel has also extended quiet support to a number of rebel groups near the border.
These policies have, tentatively and unevenly, shifted opinion in Israel’s favour among many Syrians, but they have provided fodder for wild conspiracy theories among those who support the pro-Assad coalition to say what they have said all along: the revolt is a conspiracy orchestrated from outside by Zionists.
Despite the political difficulties, the rebels’ arrangement with Israel provided mutual benefits. The rebels provided Israel with a buffer against Iran, and Israel provided the rebels and opposition-supporting communities in southern Syria a lifeline long after many of their sponsors, including the United States, had withdrawn support. This arrangement is now at an end.
Last month, the pro-Assad coalition began an offensive into the Deraa rebel pocket. The pro-Assad forces recaptured Deraa city on 12 July and Israel helped evacuate the White Helmets, the rescue workers in opposition-held areas, two weeks later.
The U.S. quickly made clear that it would not, as prior statements had suggested, protect Deraa, an area formally designated a “de-escalation zone” under an agreement with the Russians. The only potential hindrance was Israel, and Moscow managed to convince the Israelis not to intervene, even though, as was inevitable since Assad is wholly dependent on Tehran, Iranian ground forces were involved in the offensive.
Why did Israel stand aside for the fall of the Deraa to the pro-Assad coalition?
The short answer is, assuming Israel believes its public statements on the Iranian threat, that Israel continues to have faith that Russia (and sometimes, bizarrely, Assad) can or will contain Iran in Syria. This view is shared by some former US officials, yet, as I wrote in these pages in June, the overwhelming evidence is that there is no serious breach in the “resistance axis”. Russia and Assad reinforce and enable Iran’s designs.
The Israelis have tried to negotiate the terms with Russia. Israeli officials have made noisy remarks about eliminating Assad if the Russians fail to constrain Iran. On Monday, during a meeting with Russian officials, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed an offer to keep Iran 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Israel-Syria border, insisting that Iran has to withdraw its troops entirely.
But the hard fact is that when push came to shove Israel surrendered its most significant remaining lever and is now more dependent than ever in Syria on Russian goodwill, a situation no government should want to find itself in. Russia, while positioning itself as a mediator, is allowing Iran to embed in Syria, directly violating stated Israeli interests that Tehran leave completely.
Whether Israel was bluffing all along or not—it now looks like it was—its leverage is slipping all the time. Over the last fortnight, Israel has had to deploy its David Sling to defend against ballistic missiles and shoot down a Russian-made Syrian jet launched from an Iran-dominated base that penetrated two kilometres into Israeli territory. Russia was either unable or unwilling to prevent these provocations.
The Israeli response has been that Russia won’t impede its freedom of action in Syria against Iran and its appendages like Hizballah. Putting aside the fact Russia has itself directly armed, trained, and coordinated with Hizballah, which it emphatically does not believe to be a terrorist organisation. The problem with Israel’s outlook is that it misreads one dynamic, namely attributing to Russia a control of events it does not have, and ignores a second dynamic, namely the growth of Iran’s influence that will constrain Israel.
For the moment, Iran is incapable of fighting a direct war with Israel and thus wishes to avoid a repeat of the 2006 Lebanon war or anything similar. What Iran wants right now is low-level conflict against Israel that burnishes its “resistance” credentials and buys time.
The Iranian revolution is led by pragmatic fanatics who already hold the Lebanese border and are able to orchestrate political-military warfare against Israel from Gaza. Whether America recognises Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights or not, if Iran can colonize the Syrian border as well, and normalise its presence, it will have considerably neutralised responses to its regional behaviour from Israel and the West.
That outcome, which is coming unless Israel’s policy alters in the near future, would be disastrous on its own, even if Iran never sought the final showdown with Israel it so loudly proclaims it seeks.