Five years that changed Israeli-Syrian relations forever

Syria of five years ago was regarded as the last remaining potential strategic rival to Israel with shared borders

Yossi Mekelberg

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For most of the time during the civil war in Syria, Israel stood on the sidelines playing a curious though a proactive observer that intervened sporadically for rather limited objectives. Syria of five years ago was regarded as the last remaining potential strategic rival to Israel with shared borders.

In truth the border between Syria and Israel, along the occupied Golan Heights, had been quiet for nearly four decades since the end of the 1973 war. The potential military threat posed in the past to Israel from the northern neighbour almost evaporated for a combination of factors.

First and foremost the peace agreements signed first with Egypt and later Jordan, eliminated Israel’s deep concerns of war on more than one front. Moreover, military and economic support from Moscow for the regime in Damascus dwindled considerably as a result of the end of the Cold War.

Consequently the Syrian army lagged behind the Israeli army, which continued to increase capabilities due to American military and economic assistance, a highly advanced domestic weapons industry, and a successful economy capable of sustaining a powerful army.

The arrival of the so-called Arab Spring to Syria in March 2011 caught the decision makers in Jerusalem and the intelligence community by complete surprise. Falling asleep in the warm comfort of the status quo, as happened to most intelligence communities and analysts everywhere, blurred the signs of a fast approaching radical and bloody change in Syria.

It was inconceivable for them that a regime that had relied for so long on the spears of ruthless security forces, that had crushed any signs of dissent in the past, ruling by fear, would fail to nip any resistance in the bud. At first the Israeli reaction to the political upheaval in Syria was one of cautious alert, expecting President Assad to supress it quickly.

Marginal role

When this failed to materialize, a realization sunk in that Israel could only play a marginal role in such a complex and unpredictable conflict. It could neither impact the overall outcome nor the direction this neighbouring country was taking. For a country that is almost conditioned to react instantly, usually using force at the very hint of danger, Israel has been restrained and calculated. It was reluctant to take measures that might get it embroiled in what was to become the most horrific fields of killing in the region.

One should not confuse Israel’s combination of puzzlement and a generally measured intervention in the Syrian civil war, with a lack of profound concerns regarding its potential impact on Israel. The first source of concern was the fear that the war would spill over into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights or even deeper into Israel. Secondly, the idea that the strengthening of the Iran-Hezbollah nexus in Syria could result in their presence closer to the Syrian-Israeli border.

In response to these two growing risks, Israel has vowed to respond by military force to any cross border attack into its territory, and to thwart any attempt to transfer of advance “game changing” weapons from Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. These two parameters of maintaining Israeli interests were pursued rather methodically.

The increasing presence of both the Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is certainly a growing concern, which has been exacerbated in recent months as a result of the Russian military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime. In this sense the events in Syria align with Israel’s wider strategic perception of the Iranian existential threat to Israel.

The current strategic thinking in Israel is that the worst outcome for it would be that through the fog of war in Syria, the Golan Heights would gradually become Israel’s border with Iran

Yossi Mekelberg

Israeli leadership is still coming to terms with the failure to derail the nuclear agreement with Iran, which consumed Israeli foreign policy for at least a decade. It also witnesses, with great unease, the massive growth of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite movement’s military capabilities since the 2006 war in Lebanon.

From the very beginning of the uprising against Bashar Al Assad’s regime, Israel had no pre-conceived expectations regarding its outcome. It might have harboured some early hopes, some might argue wishful thinking, for the emergence of pro-Western democratic forces that might be also more accommodating towards Israel. Nonetheless, these hopes were very quickly dashed.

Hence, especially with the appearance of extreme Jihadist movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS as forces to reckon with, Israel was tacitly content with the continuation of the civil war in hopes that the warring sides would offset and weaken each other.

Thus, it might seem surprising that Israel provides some humanitarian assistance, including admitting a limited number of Syrians injured in the war to its hospitals, or its public expression of horror at the five years of carnage, of nearly half a million people, and the displacement of millions from their homes. However, it serves Israel’s public relations very well, without having a broader impact.

Future of the regime

Yet, Israel five years into the Syrian civil war, and in the midst of a very shaky ceasefire, is still unsure how its interests have been affected. Syrian military capabilities have suffered tremendously and it had to give up most of its chemical weapons. However, if the regime survives it will owe it to a large extent to Iran and the Hezbollah, who Israel currently perceives as sworn enemies.

Israel’s expectations for the US and the EU, to be more proactive in supporting the more moderate Sunni elements in resistance against the Syrian regime, as well as the Kurdish militias, to create a counterweight to the ever increasing militant elements, has hardly achieved any traction.

The current strategic thinking in Israel is that the worst outcome for Israel would be that through the fog of war in Syria, the Golan Heights would gradually become Israel’s border with Iran. For all Israel’s gains and risks from the conflict in Syria, this is the one outcome Israel is reluctant to endure. It might present the greatest stimulus for it to become more involved in a war, which is already congested with all major world and regional actors.

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.

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