Israel and the Syrian War
This is not an article, but a collection of links. Among those leftists defending the Assad dictatorship and its brutal war on its people, many claim the opposition does not consist only of proxies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf states and Turkey, but also proxies of Israel. This is odd, given Israel’s well-documented preference for a victory of a weakened Assad over any of the available alternatives. Assad, after all, has not only maintained total peace – without even symbolic moves – on the border of the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights for 40 years, a policy which Israel quite rightly does not trust any of the Syrian opposition to continue, but has also led countless attacks on Palestinians, their refugee camps, their organisations and their militants, including major aggression in 1976, 1983 and 1985-86 – and now, in countless criminal bombings and starvation sieges of Palestinian camps in Syria. See my article on this sordid history here: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/syria-and-the-palestinians-almost-no-other-arab-state-has-as-much-palestinian-blood-on-its-hands
Yet the occasional Israeli leader holds a dissident view. Israel, after all, is a “democracy,” as long as you are White and Jewish. So when retired Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, recently asserted that Israel’s interest was in a victory of the bad guys not connected to Iran (ie, the Syrian rebels) over the bad guys connected to Iran (ie, the Assad regime), the pro-Assad left spread it round their websites like wildfire – finally they had found the unique voice of an Israeli leader that validated their assertions. Alas, the reason for this wildfire was precisely that it was so unique. How do the views of one retired ambassador compare in weight to the mass of views expressed in this resource below by so many top Israeli political leaders, IDF leaders, Mossad and other intelligence officials, top strategists and academics?
1. “The Israeli Position toward the Events in Syria” looks at varying views among different sections of the Zionist ruling class and weighs them up, rather than assuming there is “an Israeli view.” This article covered the view above – regarding Syria as the link between Iran and Hezbollah – but also other concerns, particularly that the Assad dynasty has maintained its border with the Israel-occupied Golan Heights meticulously quiet for 40 years, which may not be the case if it is overthrown – and came to the conclusion that, overall, for the Zionist rulers, the dangers of the overthrow of Assad outweigh the possible benefits, despite differing views. In particular, given this paper was written in May 2011, just a few months into the uprising and long before it descended into armed conflict, the author’s conclusions are fascinating:
i. Israel would prefer that the Syrian regime not be peacefully overthrown;
ii. Israel would prefer not to respond to the Syrian people’s demand for freedom and democracy
iii. Israel hopes that the Syrian regime will resort to repressive and bloody responses to the intifada instead of entering into negotiations with the various shades of opposition, and reaching political solutions that ensure real and comprehensive reforms
iv. Israel prefers the continuation of a Syrian regime founded on tyranny and corruption in its mode of governance, as evidenced by various Israeli statements to this effect
v. Israel would prefer that Syria descends into a state of sectarian conflict that would continue as long as possible, rather than a Syrian transformation from situation of struggle to one of freedom and democracy
Clearly, Assad played the Israeli card perfectly (http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/284e36f8-7bd1-4d84-89a6-a1e9ee1b835a).
2. Israel’s intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, “warned that “radical Islam” was gaining ground in Syria, saying the country was undergoing a process of “Iraqisation”, with militant and tribal factions controlling different sectors of the country”, and claiming there was “an ongoing flow of Al-Qaeda and global jihad activists into Syria”. Making clear that his fears were about Assad losing, he said that with the Assad regime weakening, “the Golan Heights could become an arena of activity against Israel, similar to the situation in Sinai, as a result of growing jihad movement in Syria” (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/Jul-17/180917-assad-moving-troops-from-golan-to-damascus-israel.ashx#axzz20t8QAeyJ).
3. In a similar vein, Yoav Zitun, writing for Israeli newsagency Ynet, reported that, “The IDF is preparing for the possibility that global Jihad terrorists will launch attacks from Syria in case President Bashar Assad’s regime will fall … Army officials are not ruling a situation whereby terrorists will take advantage of the chaos that may follow a regime change in Damascus to seize control of the border region, as was the case in the Sinai Peninsula after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.” The army was “gearing for a number of possible scenarios, including a cross-border attack by global jihad, which is operating in Syria against Assad’s regime”. Brigadier-General Tamir Haiman warned of possible attacks “launched without prior warning from army intelligence – as was the case in the attack in Ein Netafim a year ago, which originated in Sinai” (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4248954,00.html).
4. According to Khaled Amayreh in Al-Ahram, Israel was “dismayed” by the election victory of Muslim Brotherhood chief Mursi in Egypt. He claimed a major “pillar” of Israeli policy “was courting and neutralising Arab dictators who proved highly effective in pacifying their own masses” but now Israel “is beginning to lose” this pillar. He quotes Ron Ben-Yishai, editor-in-chief of the Israeli website Ynet, not only warning of the “danger posed by the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to the helm of power in the most important and populous Arab country”, but also that “Egypt’s Islamicisation constitutes a very negative harbinger for secular regimes that rely on the army, not only in Lebanon and Syria, but also in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority”. Israel’s defence minister Ehud Barak stated “The moment Assad starts to fall we will conduct intelligence monitoring and will liaise with other agencies” regarding such intervention (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1104/eg7.htm).
5. Straight after the bombing of military facilities near Damascus on May 5, Israel sought to persuade Assad that the air strikes “did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion… Officials say Israel is reluctant to take sides in Syria’s civil war for fear its actions would boost Islamists who are even more hostile to Israel than the Assad family, which has maintained a stable stand off with the Jewish state for decades”. According to veteran Israeli politician Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government “aimed to avoid an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime” (http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/06/18079587-israel-to-syrias-assad-airstrikes-not-aimed-at-helping-rebels?lite).
6. As Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, explained, the “only scenario” for Israeli military action in Syria would be to “prevent the delivering of arms, chemical weapons and other kinds of weapons into the hands of terrorists” and noted that Netanyahu had made clear that “if there will be no threat to Israel, we won’t interfere.” Steinitz emphasized that Israel was not urging the U.S. to take any military action “whatsoever” in Syria at this stage” (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57582025/syrian-rebels-to-get-1st-direct-u.s-support-as-$8m-in-medical-supplies-rations-set-for-delivery/).
7. In a meeting with British prime minster Cameron, Netanyahu, who was visiting London for Thatcher’s funeral, again warned of the danger of western arms reaching Jihadists rebels that could be used later against Israel and western targets. (http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/britain-less-eager-to-arm-syrian-rebels-following-intel-on-al-qaida-links.premium-1.518235).
8. In an interview with BBC TV, Netanyahu called the Syrian rebel groups among “the worst Islamist radicals in the world … So obviously we are concerned that weapons that are ground-breaking, that can change the balance of power in the Middle East, would fall into the hands of these terrorists,” he said (http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-wary-quiet-on-syrian-front-may-soon-end).
9. Israel also “worries that whoever comes out on top in the civil war will be a much more dangerous adversary” than Assad has ever been, specifically in relation to the Golan Heights. “The military predicts all that (the 40-year peaceful border) will soon change as it prepares for the worst.” The region near the occupied Golan has become “a huge ungoverned area and inside an ungoverned area many, many players want to be inside and want to play their own role and to work for their own interests,” said Gal Hirsch, a reserve Israeli brigadier general, claiming Syria has now become “a big threat to Israel” over the last two years. The military’s deployment on the Golan is its most robust since 1973, “and its most obvious manifestation is the brand new border fence, 6 meters (20 feet) tall, topped with barbed wire and bristling with sophisticated anti-infiltration devices” (http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-wary-quiet-on-syrian-front-may-soon-end).
10. “Israel could launch a pre-emptive strike to stop Syria’s chemical weapons from reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah or al-Qaida inspired groups … Israel has long expressed concerns that Syrian President Bashar Assad, clinging to power during a 22-month civil war, could lose control over his chemical weapons”
11. The Syrian government has withdrawn large numbers of troops from the Golan Heights … Rebel groups have moved into the vacuum, the report said, and Israel fears that jihadists will use the area as a staging ground for attacks on Israeli territory” (http://world.einnews.com/article/145179407/uEIDkYaz8DaA9cYH?afid=777&utm_source=MailingList&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Breaking+News%3A+world348-monday).
12. “Israel’s military chief of staff has warned that some of the rebel forces trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may soon turn their attention southward and attack Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights.” ”We see terror organisations that are increasingly gaining footholds in the territory and they are fighting against Assad,”
Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz said at a conference in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. “Guess what? We’ll be next in line” (http://www.smh.com.au/world/syria-rebels-a-threat-to-golan-20130312-2fylt.html?skin=text-only).
13. “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Israel would erect a new security fence along its armistice line with Syria in order to protect the Jewish state from “infiltration and terrorism. “We know that on the other side of our border with Syria today, the Syrian army has moved away, and global jihad forces have moved in,” he said. “We must therefore protect this border from infiltrations and terror, as we have successfully been doing along the Sinai border” (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/163906).
14. “Despite Netanyahu’s weekly warnings on Iran, Syria is more imminent danger. The IDF views Iran as a problem for the ‘international community,’ but worries that the Syrian Golan could became a new version of the Gaza Strip. The main danger is brewing in Syria, where the 40 years of quiet that began in the wake of the Yom Kippur War have come to an end. Bashar Assad is still in his palace, but the post-Assad era has already started. The worrisome scenario in the north is that after Assad is gone Israel will be attacked, and the Syrian Golan will turn into a new version of the Gaza Strip, with southern Lebanon serving as a base for launching rockets and missiles. This is what is concerning the IDF’s top brass. Assad’s control of the Golan is disintegrating as his forces are being drawn into the decisive battles around Damascus and the fight for the city’s international airport (http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/despite-netanyahu-s-weekly-warnings-on-iran-syria-is-more-imminent-danger.premium-1.515547).
15. Defence ministry strategist Amos Gilad stressed that while “Israel has long made clear it is prepared to resort to force to prevent advanced Syrian weapons reaching Hezbollah or jihadi rebels”, Israel was not interested in attacking Syria’s chemical weapons because “the good news is that this is under full control (of the
Syrian government)” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/04/us-syria-crisis-chemical-israel-idUSBRE94309720130504).
16. According to Aaron Klein and Karl Vick writing in Time in February, “Hizballah is not Israel’s only concern – or perhaps even the most worrying. Details of the Israeli strikes make clear the risk posed by fundamentalist militants sprinkled among the variegated rebel forces fighting to depose Assad … jihadist groups are less vulnerable to the same levers that have proved effective against Syria and other states – such as threats to its territory — or even the frank interests of an organization like Hizballah, which as a political party plays a major role in Lebanon’s government” (http://world.time.com/2013/02/01/the-fallout-from-the-air-raid-on-syria-why-israel-is-concerned).
17. “Israel prefers the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria to continue than see a takeover of the country by rebel Islamist militants,” The Times of London reported in May 2013, quoting an Israeli intelligence official. “Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” the official said, according to the report. According to the Times, the senior intelligence officer in the north of Israel said a weakened but stable Syria under Assad is not only better for Israel but for the region as a whole (http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israeli-official-assad-preferable-to-extremist-rebels-the-times-of-london-reports-1.524605).
18. ‘Israel’s Man in Damascus – Why Jerusalem Doesn’t Want the Assad Regime to Fall’ – heading in Foreign Affairs (May 10, 2013), article by Efraim Halevy, who served as chief of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002:
“Israel’s most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed. Israel will intervene in Syria when it deems it necessary; last week’s attacks testify to that resolve. But it is no accident that those strikes were focused solely on the destruction of weapons depots, and that Israel has given no indication of wanting to intervene any further. Jerusalem, ultimately, has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
“Israel knows one important thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years, they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border. Technically, the two countries have always been at war — Syria has yet to officially recognize Israel — but Israel has been able to count on the governments of Hafez and Bashar Assad to enforce the Separation of Forces Agreement from 1974, in which both sides agreed to a cease-fire in the Golan Heights, the disputed vantage point along their shared border. Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war, the border remained quiet. Israel does not feel as confident, though, about the parties to the current conflict, and with good reason.
“Last week’s attacks were a case in point. Israel did not hesitate to order air strikes when it had intelligence that arms were going to be funneled from Syria to Hezbollah. Although Israel took care not to assume official responsibility for the specific attack, Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon publicly stated that Israel’s policy was to prevent the passage of strategic weaponry from Syria to Lebanon. But parallel with that messaging, Israel also made overt and covert efforts to communicate to Assad that Jerusalem was determined to remain neutral in Syria’s civil war (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139373/efraim-halevy/israels-man-in-damascus).
19. “Israel would prefer that Bashar Assad hold onto the presidency in Syria, rather than leave a power vacuum that could be filled by Islamic radicals, according to former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz.
“The regime in Syria kills its citizens every day, but we must acknowledge that the opposition in Syria is composed of Muslim extremists like al-Qaeda,” he said at a fundraising event for Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital in Moscow on Monday, according to the daily Maariv. “The question ‘what is better for Israel?’ is an important question because we must ask ourselves if we want to trade the bad regime we know for the very bad regime that we don’t know, and this is something that requires serious consideration.”
“At the moment it looks like even in the rest of the world, they understand that they cannot replace the Assad regime as long as they don’t know who will take its place,” he added. “Right now it looks like the alternative is forces that will endanger the stability of the region.
Meanwhile, many feared that anarchy would ensue if Assad were to fall, and Muslim extremist groups such as al-Qaeda would be free to flourish and even rule the country, which would have left them in control of Syria’s considerable chemical weapons stockpile (http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-idf-chief-israel-prefers-that-assad-stay-in-power/).
20. Israel and the Syrian War: An Interview With Professor Eyal Zisser (December 6, 2013), of Tel Aviv University, one of Israel’s best-known academic experts on Syria and Lebanon and the former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
Q. Could you describe the evolution of Israeli policy on Syria since 2011?
A. At first, Israel wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, thinking it was “the devil we know” and fearing the spread of chaos along the border. Then Israeli leaders came to the conclusion that Assad is finished. But then they became aware of the presence of al-Qaeda elements in Syria, like the rebel Nusra Front. So now the real position-not the official one-is that we wish both sides good luck and that it is in the interest of Israel that they continue fighting. Essentially, we want Assad to stay in power. We want him to be strong enough to keep the border quiet but weak enough so he will not present any real threat to Israel.
Q. What is the chance of Israel being dragged into war in Lebanon or with Syria?
A. Very low. Only if Israel is attacked by Assad-but why should he do such a stupid thing? However, Israel could find itself engaged in some local conflicts with Islamic extremists along the border or in a limited conflict with Assad if he decides to retaliate the next time Israel attacks targets in Syria. But clearly, everyone in Israel understands that Israel must not get involved in the war in Syria (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53831)
21. Interview with Seymour Hersch, December 9, 2013, Democracy Now:
AMY GOODMAN: That’s David Shedd, the deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA, speaking in July. The significance of what Shedd said, and what he also couldn’t say, Seymour Hersh?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I don’t know what he could or could not say. I’m not in—I can’t get into his mindset. I just know that by then he had received one major report, and also the ops order was being conducted. And Shedd, by—Shedd’s been around a long time. He was in the CIA. And I haven’t talked to him, and I didn’t discuss this with him. But he’s a fine intelligence officer. And I—he’s reflecting on what—look, by the time he’s talking, inside the community, for the last year, it’s been known that the only game in town, whether you like it or don’t like it, was Bashar, because otherwise the—what we call the secular anti—the opposition to Bashar, the legitimate, non-radical, if you will, dissenters, people from within the army, people—civilians who didn’t like the lack of more social progress, etc., etc., they were overrun, even by—we know that beginning in early in the year. We knew they were being overrun by jihadists. And so, the only solution, it seemed to me, for—it seems for the government at the time, the people I know—and I’ve talked to people about this for years; it’s been more than a year of talk—is, the only solution for stability was Bashar. You have to just like it or don’t like it.
Israel, which—don’t forget, Damascus is, what, 40 miles, 45 miles from the Golan Heights and 130 miles south of—north of—northeast of Tel Aviv, easily within range of any missiles. The Israelis are not going to tolerate a jihadist government inside Syria, or even any area that the jihadists will claim as an area of sharia law. They’ll hit it. The only potential for stability was to keep Bashar there, or at least to get him in a position where maybe he’d be willing to negotiate some sort of collaborative government, which seems to be the only sensible theme right now (http://www.democracynow.org/2013/12/9/seymour_hersh_obama_cherry_picked_intelligence).
22. Netanyahu and Putin agree that Assad and Sisi are better than alternatives (20 December 2013)
Putin, believes Netanyahu, has an interest in Middle East stability and the confrontation of the threats posed by ‘extremist Islam’. It has been reported that Israel’s prime minister and Russia’s President Putin agree that having Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt is better than the current alternatives of “extremists” and the Muslim Brotherhood. Maariv newspaper added that Benjamin Netanyahu has also been promised by Putin that he will block any conference proposed to discuss nuclear disarmament in the Middle East (https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/8908-netanyahu-and-putin-agree-that-assad-and-sisi-are-better-than-alternatives).
23. Jihadist tsunami on Israel’s borders: IDF barely ready for 2014
In the national security area, alongside “old” and known challenges, the security forces will be dealing with some new challenges in the coming year. The IDF and intelligence community must prepare an intelligence and operational infrastructure and develop fighting methods which will allow them to deal with a “jihadist tsunami” piling up on Israel’s borders, mainly in Syria.
We are talking about fanatic Salafi Sunnis operating as part of al-Qaeda or inspired by al-Qaeda, who are succeeding in laying their hands on huge amounts of modern weapons from the depositories of the Syrian army which Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic fronts have taken control of, and on Libyan weapons which keep flowing into the hands of Salafi groups operating in Sinai and Gaza.
The Israeli intelligence community is mainly concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra, which is active in Syria and includes some 10,000 motivated and experienced fighters, including about 1,000 foreigners from Europe and Asia. This is the biggest fighting system directly affiliated with al-Qaeda. If and when its people take over Syria, for example, they will direct their full fanatic passion and the weapons they have accumulated against us, in a way which will make us long for Hezbollah. The Americans, and mainly the Europeans, are also concerned about the al-Qaeda base which has taken its place on their doorstep (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4472027,00.html).
And finally, though this is not specifically about Syria, this article shows that the claims about a great US-Israeli rift over the US rapproachment with Iran are exaggerated at best; indeed, Syria is one area of broad agreement:
24. The great US-Israel rift that isn’t
Commentators point to discord on the Iran deal, but the two nations have an identical goal, by Haim Saban, December 24, 2013
In recent weeks, the media have had a field day reporting on a so-called rift in the U.S.-Israel relationship over the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The story makes for great headlines, but it’s poor analysis. Despite the heated rhetoric, the pillars that have anchored America’s most important alliance in the Middle East for more than six decades are just as firmly rooted today as they have ever been.
These fears come from a focus on form over substance. In statement after statement, President Obama and Netanyahu continue to articulate an identical goal: Iran must not have nuclear weapons.
For example, Israel recently hosted U.S. forces for “Blue Flag,” a major joint military exercise involving dozens of fighter jets. This is a perfect example of how Israel and the United States can put aside their differences on one issue and continue to work closely together to advance their shared interests: fighting terrorism, ending the war in Syria, promoting global development and stabilizing the Middle East.
Senior national security officials of both countries say that the U.S. and Israel have never enjoyed closer military and intelligence cooperation, with both countries, and countless others, safer as a result. With U.S. support, Israel has developed a cutting-edge missile defense system that one day may be used to guard America, just as Israeli technology protects the vehicles that U.S. soldiers drive in Afghanistan.
Haim Saban is a private equity investor, the chairman of the Spanish-language media company Univision and founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution
15 thoughts on “Israel and the Syrian War”
Something additional about Haim Saban: As a child with his parents he left Egypt for Israel shortly following the “Lavon Affair,” the uncovering of an Israeli government plot which used some Egyptian Jews as participants in bombings at British properties in Egypt, apparently in hopes of alienating the British/U.S./etc. from the newly installed Egyptian government headed by Gamal Nasser. Among the results of the uncovering of the plot (some of whose bombings were carried out) was pressure against the Jewish communities in Egypt and the exit of many Jews from Egypt.
So we have the tragedy and irony of someone who both suffered from the counter-reaction against the violent overreaching of the Israeli government and found refuge from that counter-reaction in that government’s territory being now and having been for many years an adherent and advocate for that very government while it continues its violent overreaching.
Not a unique turn in human affairs, but a tragic one nonetheless, and in many ways.