Israel and Syria beat the regional war drums

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

After decades of relative calm, the war drums are once again beating on both sides of the cease-fire border in the Golan Heights. For nearly two years since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, Israel has cautiously monitored the developments in her neighbouring country to the north-east with great apprehension, Israel has avoided, for the most part, getting embroiled in a civil war in which she could have little impact. The two air strikes, attributed to Israel, were carried out in the space of 3 days. The first, on Friday, targeted a convoy that intelligence sources suggest was carrying the Fateh 110s missiles, and the second, on Sunday, hit the Jamraya military complex.

Condemnation followed instantly from Syrian and Iranian governments and also Hezbollah levelling at Israel that; “the blatant Israeli aggression against military sites in Syria confirms the co-ordination between Israel and terrorist groups.” Faisal al-Mokdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, told journalists that the operation was a “declaration of war” by Israel and accused her of supporting terrorists including al-Qaeda.

Israel’s dilemma

Rhetoric aside, this illustrates Israel’s dilemma since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and to an extent the Arab Spring. The rapid and radical change in her neighbouring countries has been a humbling experience for Israel, which has had to acknowledge and accept that, despite its military and economic might, it has little if any influence on these far-reaching historic changes.

At the start of the upheaval in Syria, Israel refrained from making statements, as it tacitly hoped for the Assad regime to survive, believing that any statement of support would achieve the opposite results

Yossi Mekelberg

Consequently, her long standing strategy of relying on dictatorial regimes, such as the Mubarak and Assad regimes, to maintain its security has run its course. Israel, similar to many others in the international community, is perplexed by the nature and swiftness of the disappearance of the old order, and the complex incoherence of the new order. The rise of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt was followed by the breakdown of law and order in the Sinai Peninsula, continuing instability in Jordan, and the prolonged civil war in Syria. These are just a few examples of the turmoil which has ensued since the Arab Spring began. Uncharacteristically for Israel, until the recent airstrikes on Syria, she has kept quite a low profile in her response to these changes. She has all but resigned herself to the fact that all she can do is monitor the situation closely, confining her role to no more than containing and limiting the strategic damage. This reactive rather than proactive role is one that Israel is not usually comfortable or happy with.

The protracted and brutal civil war in Syria poses some unique strategic challenges to Israel. While Israeli sources insist that Iran and its nuclear programme remain Israel’s primary strategic concern in the foreseeable future, the volatility of the situation in Syria has turned into a major source of uncertainty and is closely related to the Iranian perceived threat and the threat posed by Iran’s key ally the Hezbollah. The potential fall of Syrian advanced military technology, and even worse, chemical weapons in the hands of the Hezbollah or other groups, is a source of grave concern. However, Israel’s main strategic dilemma in Syria at the moment is the lack of any effective option.

Israeli strategic silence

At the start of the upheaval in Syria, Israel refrained from making statements, as it tacitly hoped for the Assad regime to survive, believing that any statement of support would achieve the opposite results. Continuing the forty years of calm along the Golan Heights borders was what the Jewish state wanted to maintain and Israel cannot presently envision a better alternative. This view is amplified by a divided opposition and the presence of a substantial number of Jihadists. However, a major caveat is the Assad regime’s close ties with Iran and the Hezbollah, both of whom Israel sees as arch enemies.

In its third year of civil war, as the situation in Syria is becoming murkier without a solution in sight, Israel is growing anxious about the transfer of weapons and munitions from Syria (or from Iran through Syria) to the hands of the Hezbollah. From the beginning, Israeli diplomatic and military sources warned that Israel will not tolerate the transfer of “game-changing weapons” to the hands of the Lebanese organisation. In other words, weapons including long range missiles, sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, such as the SA-17, and any chemical weapons were drawn as redlines that would result in military action by Israel. Israeli strategists’ working assumption is that Israel and Hezbollah are likely to confront each other on the battlefield in the future; hence it became a major priority to stop the organisation from acquiring advanced military technology which might render the Israeli population centres vulnerable. Despite a successful introduction of a range of air defence interception systems, including the Iron Dome and the Arrow, Israel still has a limited number of these systems and feels exposed to incoming rockets and missiles.

The danger of Israeli airstrikes on Syria is that by the law of unintended consequences, slowly but surely, Israel will find itself dragged into the quagmire of the Syrian a civil war, a war in which it cannot play a determining role. Furthermore, she might end up strengthening the very forces she least wants to, decide Syria’s future and also increase the likelihood of a direct clash with Iran. This chilling scenario of an Iranian-Israeli clash prompted by the situation in Syria, could potentially escalate towards a wider war, especially as diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear project seem to stall and events in Syria impact the national interests of both countries.

A show of force

Some might argue that the show of power by the Israeli Air Force was aimed at Iran as much as at Syria. It demonstrated its capabilities of hitting targets accurately without penetrating Syrian airspace; firing its advanced Popeye and Spice missiles from Lebanon. This message has not eluded the Iranians, prompting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi not only to condemn the attack but also to state that Israel would not dare to replicate this kind of attack against Iran.

The civil war in Syria is far from decided and the on-going tragic suffering of the Syrian people is far from over. A divided opposition, coupled with an incompetent international system in which its member states either behave irresponsibly or even negligently whilst facing a ruthless Syrian regime that fights for its life, contributes to the continuation of the unacceptable bloodshed. A sustained Israeli military involvement can only exacerbate the situation for Syrians, Israelis and the rest of the region. The events of the last few days are a reminder, that the lack of a solution in Syria might become a catalyst for a regional war.


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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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