Israeli politicians are not known for keeping their opinions to themselves. However, this week the leaders in Jerusalem stayed uncharacteristically reserved and succinct in their comments about Israel’s position vis-à-vis an American led military attack on Syria, in response to the regime in Damascus’ use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
While the war drums were beating in Washington, London, Paris and other capitals, in preparation for an attack in Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered members of his cabinet to refrain from making public statements about the situation. And indeed the official line was that Israel has no interest in any intervention in the Syrian civil war and would not like to be dragged into it by the Assad regime or its allies.
Quiet as a mouse
Nevertheless, it would be mistake to interpret the relative silence as either a lack of Israeli interest in what is happening on the other side of the Golan Heights, or as a lack of preparation for a scenario if the war were to spill over into Israel deliberately or inadvertently. Both Netanyahu and his army’s Chief of Staff, Lt. General Benny Gantz, did their best to send a message of business as usual, but at the same time with a clear threat to Syria that Israel would not tolerate any attack on its territory and citizens including in the occupied Golan Heights.
There is a sense of déjà-vu among Israelis which reminds them of the dark days of January 1991 when Saddam Hussein attempted to involve Israel in the Gulf War, in the hope that this would break the international coalition against him. Back then, 39 Scud missiles were fired at Israel sending millions of Israelis to sealed rooms wearing gas masks fearing that the Iraqi missiles were carrying chemical warheads. While the fear of the use of chemical weapons eventually proved false, it still caused many thousands of Israelis to evacuate their houses and look for refuge away from the reach of Saddam’s missiles. For the first time in many years, despite its military might, Israel felt vulnerable and pressured by Washington not to retaliate.
This time the military action will be much closer to home, and one of the Syrian regime’s main allies is Hezbollah, which in the past showed its readiness to fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel in response to Israeli aggression. On this occasion it might try to initiate an Israeli military response. Similarly to threats of Bagdad in 1991, officials in Tehran and Damascus have threatened that if attacked by the U.S. it would retaliate against Israeli targets.
Israel might not see Bashar al-Assad as the ideal neighbor, but it is even more apprehensive of his potential successors.Yossi Mekelberg
Whether these are just empty threats rather than a real declaration of intent to attack Israel, it might still set in motion a miscalculated chain of events which could lead to confrontation. General Gantz was quick to suggest that Israel would not like to take part in the conflict taking place inside the borders of its northern neighbor, but clarified if fired at, Israel will make the aggressor pay very heavily “… and the losses of the enemy will be stinging and difficult.” Since an American attack of some scale seems imminent, some confrontation which involves Israel might not be outside the realm of possibility.
Despite the semblance of calm on the Israeli side of the border, the government and the army are taking steps in case of a military escalation. Reserve soldiers were called for service, gas masks were swiftly distributed and Iron Dome anti rocket air defense batteries were deployed around major cities, all in preparation for an attack, even a chemical one, as unlikely as it seems.
Nevertheless, what happens right now has wider strategic implications for Israel. The Arab Spring in general and the civil war in Syria in particular, left Israel perplexed and unprepared. It also exposed how very few strategic options Israel has to influence what happens inside the borders of its neighbours. A region which in a very peculiar way seemed stable, if not overly friendly to Israel, has became extremely uncertain for Israel. Even worse for Israel was the recognition that it was left with very few levers to impact these far reaching changes which might greatly affect national interest.
The strategic challenge posed by Syria is even greater than the one presented by other Arab countries that have changed radically since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Most of these countries share no common borders with Israel and even in the case of Egypt, which shares a border with Israel, the Sinai Peninsula serves as a buffer zone. Moreover Syria, unlike Egypt, is in danger of political disintegration. Syria is geographically much closer to Israeli population centers, has considerable piles of chemical and biological weapons and its allies Iran and the Hezbollah are regarded by the current Israeli government as sworn enemies. In addition, whatever happens in Syria creates ripple effects in Lebanon and hence might affect Israel’s northern border. The readiness of Syria to use chemical weapons is also a warning sign to Israel, that at least certain elements within the Assad regime are losing their nerve. Therefore it is possible, as they come under increasing pressure, that they might use chemical weaponry against Israel in an attempt to shift attention from their own civil war. Considering recent Jewish history, the use of chemical weapons touches upon a raw nerve in Israel, which is generally obsessed with security.
More red lines
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, for the most part Israel has shown considerable restraint, most likely learning from its past experience that being sucked into a civil war can only end in defeat. Yet, Israel set two red lines which she adhered to: no to the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and no to firing across the border into Israel or the occupied Golan Heights. When these red lines were crossed Israel either responded by using its air force to destroy convoys of weapons, or by firing across the border into Syria. However, similarly to large parts of the international community, Israel has no clear idea what it would like to see happening in Syria. Israel might not see Bashar al-Assad as the ideal neighbor, but it is even more apprehensive of his potential successors.
For more than four decades, the Assad family provided some certainty and stability for Israel on one of its fronts. The potential demise of the Alawites in Syria might be the beginning of a long period of instability, which might shake the uneasy coexistence between the two countries. Furthermore, the fear of the WMDs in Syria falling into the hands of Hezbollah or Islamic Jihadists is a cause of grave concern for the Israelis, not to mention whether this could lead to a potential confrontation with Iran over the nuclear issue. An attack on Syria, depending on Iranian reaction, might accelerate such a confrontation.
The world has been very slow in responding adequately to the mass atrocities committed against the Syrian people by the Assad regime. The next few days might be a first step towards stopping their suffering, or just a passing episode in this tragedy which would help some in the international community to clear (undeservedly I might add) their consciences. Others will continue to play power politics on the backs of millions of innocent Syrians. Israel is watching all of this with apprehension regarding its own security, and unlike the Gulf War in 1991 will not stay idle this time if attacked.
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.