Israel and Syria: edging towards the brink

It can be seen as almost a miracle that in the three years of civil war in Syria, Israel managed not to become involved

Yossi Mekelberg
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It can be seen as almost a small miracle that in the three years of brutal civil war in Syria, for the most part, Israel managed not to become embroiled in the conflict. Considering the conflict’s impact and its outcome on Israeli national interests, one would have feared that the Israeli security establishment would be tempted to use its military power in order to protect the country’s interests. This happened in very small doses. It might be as a result of Israel’s realisation that it has very limited options, most of which amounted to no more than damage control. A major source of frustration for the decision makers in Israel was that no proactive policies could shape the future of her neighbour from the north-east to her advantage.

Developments in Syria are of great worry for Israel because they have far reaching ramifications well beyond the two countries’ relationship, and also affect relationships with Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinians and the spread of fundamentalism closer to Israeli borders. For a country which used to believe, rightly or wrongly, that it could play a major role in shaping its international surroundings through direct or indirect intervention this is a rude awakening. Suddenly she is left on the side-lines, with nearly no input or influence, regarding a major change which is taking place on her doorstep.

Cautious approach

For most of the last three years, the Israeli security establishment adopted a very cautious and measured approach. Israel set two clear redlines for Syria and her allies, which if violated would lead to an Israeli military response. The first was the prevention of the transfer of sophisticated weapons to the hands of the Hezbollah from either Syria or Iran. The other was preventing the spill over of the Syrian civil war into the occupied Golan Heights or Israel proper. Since 2011, the IDF acted only sporadically, avoiding taking measures which might lead to unintended escalation and end in direct confrontation. The Syrian government and Hezbollah showed restraint on the occasions that Israel attacked convoys of weapons heading towards Hezbollah strongholds, and Israel used only limited force when stray bombs or rockets crossed the cease fire line in the Golan Heights.

Israeli motivation to deprive Hezbollah of acquiring sophisticated weapons is an obvious one considering that another round of hostilities between the two is more than possible

Yossi Mekelberg

However, in the last few weeks, a sequence of events rattled not only Israel, but also Syria and Hezbollah. First, on Feb. 24, Israeli warplanes launched two raids near the Syrian-Lebanese border targeting a weapons convoy, which apparently carried missiles from Syria to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Unlike previous air strikes this one occurred on the Lebanese side of the border, and in the proximity of the Lebanese Shiite movement’s stronghold in Baalbek.

Israeli motivation to deprive Hezbollah of acquiring sophisticated weapons is an obvious one considering that another round of hostilities between the two is more than possible. However, this puts Hezbollah in the difficult position of losing credibility if it does not retaliate to Israeli attacks. Israeli constructive ambiguity regarding her responsibility for targeting Hezbollah convoys has enabled the Lebanese organization to avoid taking counter measures without losing too much credibility, and without escalation into an all-out war. The decision to attack inside Lebanon might have been reached by Israel for operational reasons, but it resulted in increasing pressure on the Hezbollah to respond. And indeed, soon after the Israeli airstrike, Hezbollah fighters ambushed a group of Israeli paratroopers, who were patrolling in the Golan Heights not far from the town of Majdal Shams bordering Syria. The border skirmish left four Israeli paratroopers injured. This, in return, led to further Israeli airstrikes on army headquarters and artillery batteries within Syria, killing at least one Syrian soldier and injuring many more. For now, this tit for tat seems to have come to a halt. The question remains, how long before there is another flare up?

Israel’s next steps

The Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon, in his customarily bold manner, made it clear that Israel “… will not tolerate any violation of our sovereignty and any attack on our soldiers and civilians, and will respond with determination and force against anyone who acts against us, in any place and at any time, as we did last night.” He may have conveniently forgotten that Israel is not the sovereign power in the Golan Heights. Nevertheless, and more importantly, he was ready on this occasion to let the world know that Israel was behind these air raids as means of deterrence. Ya’alon’s comments might be a departure from the ‘plausible deniability’ approach and a signal of readiness on Israel’s part to become more proactive in pursuing its objectives in Syria and Lebanon. The decision makers in Israel recognize that there is a slim chance that any outcome of the civil war in Syria will favor Israeli interests. In the meantime, however, Hezbollah, despite losing hundreds of its combatants in the fight in Lebanon, is acquiring valuable experience in the battlefield and is gradually becoming equipped with more advanced weaponry. The dilemma for Israel is whether to risk a rapid escalation or potentially facie a better equipped and experienced Hezbollah in a future theater of war. Neither of these options is appealing to Israeli leadership, and for now it would probably prefer to avoid confrontation. The situation is extremely volatile and any localised incident might lead to full blown hostilities reminiscent of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In this equation, one should also not forget that President Assad has little interest in opening a new front with Israel, while he is fighting for his survival. However, he might reach an erroneous conclusion that involving Israel in the civil war might divert attention from the internal conflict. This very dangerous scenario could lead to a war which would most likely not aid in strengthening Assad, but instead lead to more bloodshed. For forty years the truce along Golan Heights’ border between Syria and Israel was kept by both sides. Nonetheless, miscalculation by any of the sides involved, in favor of short term gains, might end in a high risk crisis and even 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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