Objectives of the war in Syria: Israel‘s Dilemma

This is the second part of a series that would cover the major players in the Syria war, trying to step back from the daily news and think about broader strategy and objectives. Disclaimer: I am not an expert on this topic. Anything below is my attempt to understand what would make sense based on events so far. I’d love to consider other options I haven’t thought about in the comments!

Having considered Syria in a previous post, this one will focus on the objectives of Israel, its southwestern neighbor, in the war in Syria. Many observers feel strongly about Israel, itself a deeply polarizing country. Although it is not openly involved in the Syrian war, Israel has strong interests in its outcome. As the war drags on, these interests draw Israeli attention towards Syria.

Israeli government officials (Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the center) and military officers observe Syria across the border (source).

Stepping back for a moment, Israel has several advantages. It is a regional power, and possesses a powerful economy and army. It is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons (although it remains vague on the topic), and is the largest recipient of American military aid in the world over the recent decades (currently over $3 billion/year). Israel leads the region in fields such as education, innovation, and infrastructure, allowing it to create business and political ties with the Western world. Its strong connection to the US, which is its closest and most important ally, is hugely important for geopolitics in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Israel is also disadvantaged. As a Jewish state, it has no obvious alliances in an unfriendly and unstable Muslim-majority region. Its international image has been sullied for decades and it is seen by many in a strong negative light. Israel’s domestic and foreign policies, especially with regard to the Palestinians, have made it unpopular among growing parts of the world.

Religion in the Middle East. Some errors but the general picture is correct. (Source)

Israel has two main objectives which determine its regional foreign policy:

First, maintaining Israel’s security. Although the term “security” can be (and has been) used to mean almost anything, in this context I focus on the economic security which is key to understand Israel’s position. Israel’s casualties in all its wars since over the past 70 years — somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 — are miniscule compared to its neighbors. Terror attacks receive much international attention in the West but ultimately have minor effects in absolute numbers.

However, Israel’s modern economy is exceedingly vulnerable to the collateral damage any large-scale confrontation would cause. Even brief closures of Israel’s single international airport have been seen as major threats (on the Israeli side) and achievements (on its enemies’ side). If it becomes more risky to do business in Israel’s center, international investment might pull back, possibly causing an economic collapse.

Second, maintaining Israel’s dominant position in the region. Israel has achieved this despite its relative lack of natural resources and its small size. Israel would prefer to keep its hegemony under the current geopolitical status quo. The appearance of a state competitor — whether in politics, economy, or military — would be unwelcome and blunt Israel’s currently edge. Israel’s nuclear weapons have traditionally allowed it more freedom of operation in the region, including against what it perceived as attempts by other countries to join the nuclear race.

At the present, the main threat Israel perceives to its security and dominance is the Shi’a axis that connects Hizbollah in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, Israel’s most serious adversary. This is not an obvious threat — the Shi’a are smaller in numbers than the Sunni countries in the Middle East. However, they are much more cohesive. Iran and Hizbollah in particular have demonstrated their ability to effectively pursue long-term goals and challenge Israeli hegemony.

Israel’s official Twitter account in Arabic. The title of the cartoon is “Israel cut the arm of the Iranian octopus”. Note that Syria is represented by the opposition flag (rather than its official flag).

The changing balance in the Middle East has pushed Israel into a de facto alliance with the Sunni Muslim side. Israel sees the Sunnis — countries such as Egypt and Jordan, but also Saudi Arabia and Turkey— as less threatening and believes it can influence them more easily. The closer ties reflect the fact that quite a few Sunni countries are allied with Western (particularly US) interests.

The war in Syria is strategically important for Israel because Israel believes its outcome will determine a new balance of power in the Middle East. The close involvement of superpowers (the US and Russia), alongside other regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) has created chaos. Syria’s weakness and the internecine fighting between Arabs obviously benefits Israeli interests over the short-term, weakening its enemies. Over the longer term, Israel prefers Syria to remain as weak as possible, and out of any regional alliances.

At the moment, Israel leads over its regional competitors in conventional military power. Over most of the past two decades, however, this lead has been de facto eroded. Previously, Israel waged war on its borders and in the territories of its enemies. Lately, however, the burden of war has been moving into Israeli territory. Improving technology, alongside the proliferation of short and long term missiles in the region has threatened increasing parts of Israeli territory. This began in the first Gulf War (1991) when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel, causing relatively little damage. Mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza began in 2001 and have intermittently continued since. The peak of such attacks was during the 2014 Protective Edge Operation, during which around 4000 rockets were launched, reaching as far as Tel-Aviv. The effect of these rockets was more symbolic, as actual damage was minimal.

Israel’s anti-missile system Iron Dome. This system was responsible for reducing casualties and damage during the 2014 Protective Edge Operation (source)

The same cannot be said about the 2006 Lebanon War with Hizbollah. An Israeli report noted that the 4,000 or so Hizbollah rockets launched into Israel caused “extensive damage” to Israeli infrastructure; about 250,000 civilians evacuated northern Israel and relocated elsewhere. Considering the fact that Hizbollah has used the past decade to better arm itself, and has — according to Israeli sources — up to 150,000 rockets (compared to a tenth of this number in 2006), any open conflict will cause unprecedented damage to both sides. Israel seems aware of this and is careful not to escalate the situation with Hizbollah. Despite over 100 airstrikes in Syria since the beginning of the war, many of which were directed at Hizbollah convoys, Israel did not strike within Lebanon (where Hizbollah’s leader Nasrallah has threatened to strike back in kind). Hizbollah was also the main enemy of the largest military exercise in Israel for 20 years that took place in late 2017 amidst a scenario of a Hizbollah assault of Israel.

Israeli and US forces in a large joint bi-annual exercise, Juniper Cobra; the next one is in March 2018 (source)

Let us now examine how Israeli thinking on Syria (might have) evolved over time. Objectives are in roughly descending order from the Israeli perspective, and my estimation of the current likelihood of each is in italics.

  1. Total Collapse in Syria. Until not long ago the probability for Syria to collapse into a failed state with little to no central authority seemed high. There were multiple pathways that seemed to lead towards this end. These included among others the US efforts to push towards regime change, the continued strife among the factions in Syria, and even an ISIS takeover. Israel would have hoped for such a situation, which would weaken its main enemies Iran and Hizbollah. According to this scenario, Israeli hegemony in the region would be unchallenged and maintained for years if not decades — at a very low price for Israel. As of the time of writing (late February 2018), however, all of these pathways seem irrelevant. Unless something significant and unexpected changes the course of the war, this scenario is very unlikely.
  2. Weaken Assad. Failing the above, Israel will prefer to weaken Assad’s government as much as possible for as long as possible. Disregarding assassination ideas for the moment, the obvious way to do so is to support Assad’s enemies in the region, namely the militias that are still fighting him. Some of these militias are conveniently located on the Syrian side of the de facto border between both countries. After staying neutral during the beginning of the war in Syria, Israel secretly began to support some of these militias and local population through humanitarian aid and arms, support that has becoming clearer over time. By doing so Israel is probably hoping to establish a permanent or semi-permanent allied force in southern Syria, along the lines of the South Lebanon Army militia with which it collaborated between 1985–2000. Based on recent events, however, this scenario is also unlikely. Israel does not have enough allies in the region; its reputation in Syria is sullied; it does not have an obvious military advantage over the larger actors in Syria (e.g. Russia, the US); and its would-be allies are weak and untrustworthy.
  3. Use the US and Russia to weaken Assad’s allies. In parallel, Israel will try to weaken Syria’s alliances, namely with Iran and Hizbollah, by increasing the political pressure on them through Israel’s own allies. The problem here is that Israel does not seem to have enough leverage to pressure both of Syria’s allies. In the international arena, the US Trump administration seems to be shifting its concern from focusing on supporting Israel to worrying about its own adversaries. The recent US National Defense Strategy document declares Russia and China to be Washington’s main threats. In this context, Iran’s attempts to establish its hegemony in the Middle East are less central to the US. America‘s policy and objectives in the region, it seems, are becoming less clear — and this worries Israel. Russia, which has good relations with Israel, is building its own ties to Damascus and Tehran. Putin would not support Israel to the extent that the Washington has. Any pax Russica in the region would likely result in Israel eventually losing its edge and hegemony (but keep its security). All this is to say that in the current situation, Israel has little support it can count on from its powerful allies.
  4. Demonstrate hegemony/military superiority through military operations. Israel had formerly used its military advantage over Syria to strike what it deemed as strategic targets inside Syria. Despite propaganda which says otherwise, the Feb. 10 incident in which Israel lost a F-16 plane leveled the playing field. While Israel can still strike within Syria at will using its superior air force, the price for doing so will be considerably higher, perhaps too high for risk-averse Israel to pay. The Israelis have since tested Syria’s air defenses with drones and rockets, but Syrian response to invasions of its airspace is more aggressive than before. In essence, Syria is forcing Israel to decide whether to intervene militarily. This brings the risk of being drawn into an open war with Syria (and more importantly, its allies) with potential disastrous consequences for Israel’s stability and economy even if Israel would win on the battlefield. The chances for a military escalation to happen over the short term are currently low — there are simply too many other interests in Syria which would not see overt Israeli involvement positively.
  5. Establish a buffer zone from Syria. Israel had hoped to establish a buffer “de-escalation” zone in southern Syria. This move would remove the Syrian army and its foreign supporters from the Israeli border. Israel attempted to gain support for such move with both Russia (which refused) and the US (which ignored the request). As the Syrian government grows stronger, the chances of anyone agreeing to maintain such a de-escalation zone are plummeting. The chances for this to happen are low and will decrease once the Syrian government retakes its southern territories.
  6. Weaken the Shi’a alliance. Seeing that Israel is running out of options, its most promising course of action is to do as much as possible to weaken the Shi’a alliance internationally, using Israel’s considerable influence in the US and Russia, but also by trying to influence global public opinion. This fits recent Israeli reports on chemical weapons Assad was supposed to be ready to use, the Israeli media’s emphasis on the humanitarian situation in Ghouta, and Israel’s denouncement of Iran’s growing power. This would be the cheapest and least risky option for Israel over the short run, but the clear signs of war weariness in the West, Israel’s repeated use of its international credit, and its increasing domestic tensions around Netanyahu’s indictment significantly reduce the chances of its success.
  7. Tighten regional alliances. Israel would also probably continue to tighten its ties with the Sunni Middle Eastern countries— in particular Saudi Arabia, but also other countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and to a lesser extent Turkey. These might become even closer allies in the future, despite past and present tensions. Such moves will not come easy — at the very least, public opinion in Israel and the Sunni countries is against such cooperation, and the current right-wing Israeli government will likely face domestic challenges once these ties will be made more explicit. Add to this the disconcerting fact that the Sunni Arab states have not been able, so far, to reach their own objectives (e.g. Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Turkey in N. Syria), and the potential practical gain from such alliances might not be as high as Israel would hope.
  8. Invade southern Syria. Another alternative would be to invade southern Syria, as has been warned against by some Israeli media. Israeli planners might hope for a limited engagement such as Turkey’s invasion in northern Syria, but its ‘boots on the ground’ could quickly and unpredictably escalate into a much larger regional conflict. What Israel would stand to gain from such a move is questionable, since its enemies would engage Israeli territory with missiles as well as invading forces. No matter which side would “win” (whatever it means), the costs for both and the region would be enormous.
Jerusalem, recently declared to be Israel’s capital by the US (source)

Israel, therefore, faces a dilemma. Acting now has immediate obvious risks, but delaying action could result in even higher future costs. It seems that Israel’s best course of action is to play for time, namely to try and prolong the war in Syria for as long as possible. In this way and through non-military efforts, Israel would hope that the current geopolitical trend will change, make the situation in Syria more favorable for its main interests.

More practically, it seems that Israel would use its formidable diplomatic clout to keep the US in the region for as long as possible and push for as much international intervention as possible, artificially prolonging the war and preventing Syria from re-unifying. Israel would keep its ties to Russia as a backup plan. Material and economic support to opposition forces (and diplomatic backup against actions against them) would continue for as long as possible. Economic and diplomatic overtures towards the other countries in the region would continue in hopes of establishing stronger alliance in the future. Chances for more direct Israeli involvement in Syrian affairs are low. This means that the eruption of open large-scale hostilities with Iran or Hizbollah in the current power configuration is also unlikely.

On the less positive side (from Israel’s perspective), the success of Israel’s policy requires a major realignment of power in the region which is opposite to the current trend. The odds of Israeli success are not impossible of course, but they are probably lower than they have been in years.

Would all this would be enough for Israel to succeed over the longer term? Let’s discuss this further below!

PS — See my previous post about Syria below: