It might be argued that Israel’s success, in almost entirely avoiding direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, should be regarded as a small miracle. The complete breakdown of the political order across the border from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has kept the Jewish state watchful and apprehensive for over four years now.
Wherever Israel looks there is potential danger, years of instability and prospective conflict lay ahead. Until the 2011 Syrian uprising started, the Golan Heights was the quietest of Israel’s borders since a ceasefire was brokered after the 1973 October (Yom Kippur) war. Interestingly enough, the firing of four rockets last Thursday from Syrian territory towards the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee, was the first deliberate attack in more than four decades. This might explain the relatively robust Israeli military response, and the rage expressed by the country’s political leaders.
With or without a peace agreement with Syria, the longevity of the military calm along the Golan Heights border very much became associated with the endurance of the al-Assads in power in Damascus. Yet, increasingly it presents the decision makers in Jerusalem with complex conundrums.
The Assad regime comes as a package deal along with Iran and the Hezbollah, two parties who are perceived in Israel as sworn existential enemies. Moreover, considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad and his regime committed human rights atrocities on a mass scale, they are internationally regarded as a pariah state that Israel could never openly support. The regime’s survival depends mainly on fear and loathing of the alternatives, a number of countries with vested interests in keeping the current regime in power, and an international community, which remains divided on the issue.
Since 2011, the Israeli strategy was one of minimal intervention, in hope that the “devil they know” would survive, rather than a victory by a devil they did not know. The prospect of an Islamic fundamental Jubhat al-Nusra or ISIS-style state on its border, is far from being an attractive one. However, Iran’s power and influence in Syria is growing steadily, as the current regime increasingly depends on Iran for its survival. This is understandably a serious concern for Israel, as it brings Iran and its allies closer than ever to a border held by Israel, and with it the likelihood of a military clash, if even a limited one.
The Assad regime comes as a package deal along with Iran and the Hezbollah, two parties who are perceived in Israel as sworn existential enemiesYossi Mekelburg
Though rockets fired into Israel last week were attributed to the Islamic Jihad, not surprisingly, Israel pointed fingers at Tehran. They asserted that the attack was directed by Saeed Izaadhi the head of the Palestinian division of the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard. Israel’s immediate response by air and artillery was the most intense since the start of the civil war. They initially targeted Syrian military installations, and later hit a car, killing five militants who, according to Israeli spokespersons, fired the rockets a day earlier.
The scale of the Israeli response and the bold language used in holding both Syria and Iran accountable, begs the question whether Israel is ready to abandon its strategy toward the unrelenting upheaval in Syria. For four years Israel maintained that it would not take any action except in retaliation to cross-border fire into areas under Israeli control, or if Syria and Iran attempted to transfer weapons and ammunition that are regarded by Israel as “game changer.” For the better part of this period Israel adhered to this policy. However, one can detect somewhat of a departure from this policy in recent months, as Israel is taking a more proactive approach in hitting militants in the Syrian Golan Heights. It aims to disrupt what Israeli intelligence sources claim to be planned attacks against Israel.
It is understandable why Israel would feel nervous about the cross-border presence of Hezbollah military personal, Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guard or members of the militia formed by Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who was released from Israeli jail in a prisoner exchange with the Hezbollah. However, the Israeli extrajudicial assassinations such as that of Jihad Mughniyeh’s, at the beginning of this year, or of two Hezbollah operatives and three Syrian militiamen of the National Defense Forces in an airstrike a few weeks ago, run the risk of an out of control escalation. It is imperative that the Israeli decision makers balance the danger of the presence of these hostile elements, against the risk of starting a vicious cycle of revenge and counter-revenge in the Golan Heights.
Directly levelling accusations at Iran, also suggests that Israel sees events in the Golan Heights as additional leverage to cast doubts, if not derail, the nuclear agreement that was reached with Iran. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon asserted that the corollary of the nuclear deal with Iran and the ensuing lifting of sanctions would inevitably lead to “the prelude to a richer and more murderous Iran.” If this is the working assumption of the Israeli military establishment, it might be interested in heating up, probably in a limited way, the border with Syria. In doing so, Israel would join forces, at least inadvertently, with those within the Iranian political system who for their own reasons would like to derail the nuclear agreement. This type of scenario could lead to Israel being dragged into the civil war in Syria with unknown and most likely dire consequences.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.