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The Enemy of My Enemy

Written by Moran Azoulay

Published in The Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2015

Of Syria’s five neighbors, Israel has been the least involved in the turmoil that is devouring the country and the least affected by it. Turkey and Jordan have supported different factions of the Syrian opposition. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite party militia, terrorist organization, and Iranian proxy, has conducted much of the fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. ISIS, the jihadi organization, has assumed control of large swaths of land in western Iraq and eastern Syria. But Israel has engaged only in limited skirmishes along the ceasefire line in the Golan and a few pinprick attacks on weapon systems about to be delivered to Hezbollah. While Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have taken in millions of Syrian refugees, Israel has opened its borders to supply largely unpublicized humanitarian aid to people who remain enemy civilians.

Keeping Israel out of the fray is certainly the wish of the Assad regime and its patrons, Iran and Hezbollah, that have, on the whole, been careful not to provoke the Jewish state into taking strong action. They know full well that Israel could weaken the regime’s air force and armored units enough to expose them to defeat by the opposition. Iran’s calculus has also been affected by its own nuclear ambitions. It no doubt fears that a major clash in Syria or Lebanon could lead to an Israeli attack on its nuclear installations or at least have a detrimental effect on its negotiations with the P5+1 nations.

Israel, for its part, has looked at the Syrian crisis through two lenses. The first is focused on Syria itself. While Israel has fought several costly wars directly with Syria and has faced Syrian-supported Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, it has also, since 1991, conducted round after round of serious negotiations with the Assad regimes. Five Israeli prime ministers have conveyed to Hafez and Bashar al-Assad their hypothetical, conditional willingness to come down from the Golan Heights in return for a satisfactory peace and security package. Indeed, up until the eve of the civil war, Benjamin Netanyahu was party to a mediation effort conducted by the American diplomat Fred Hof. When the demonstrations against the Assad regime turned into a full-fledged rebellion in 2011, Israel had to decide what it preferred: the Syrian regime’s survival or a rebel victory .

Two schools of thought quickly crystalized: The first argued that “the devil we know” was preferable to the prospect of an Islamist takeover. The second, more optimistic school of thought envisioned the prospect of significant change for the better in Syria and Lebanon and advocated intervention on behalf of the rebels. Netanyahu’s government chose the former course. It drew redlines and strove to impede the transfer of advanced weapon systems to terrorist organizations, first and foremost Hezbollah, by carrying out several (officially unacknowledged) surgical air strikes against such deliveries. It also retaliated against every shot fired across the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire line in the Golan and initiated limited (also unacknowledged) tactical cooperation with jihadi groups along that line to prevent their shared enemy, Hezbollah, from extending its zone of confrontation with Israel.

Netanyahu’s prudence was in tune with the general conservatism his government displayed in dealing with other matters related to national security. It was also, of course, a reflection of what Israel has deduced from its failed attempt in 1982 to shape the politics of a neighboring Arab country. Of course, even the optimistic school of thought had to admit that Israel’s options were always limited in the Syrian arena. If Israel wished to support a secular, moderate opposition in Syria (when it seemed that one did exist), any signs of such assistance would have been seized upon by the regime as proof that the rebellion was not an authentic movement but rather a conspiracy hatched by the United States and Israel.

But, of course, the second lens through which Israel views the Syrian crisis is the wider one that encompasses Israel’s overall interests and place in the Middle East. Israel had an understandably difficult time sizing up the long-term significance of the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011. Was it a wave of viable democratic reforms that would create a different, ultimately more hospitable region, or was it a fleeting moment that would produce pressures on Israel (from the Obama administration, for one) to take dangerous risks? Soon enough, however, the Arab Spring gave way to a somber winter—in Syria more than anywhere else.

Syria also became the arena for a proxy war between Iran and its regional rivals. Israel has a major stake in the outcome of this conflict. It realizes that Assad’s fall could be the prelude to a change in Lebanon and to a weakening of Hezbollah that would constitute a blow to its most threatening regional enemy: Iran. If this were to occur, it would be worth the price of an ISIS presence on Israel’s border, undesirable as that might be.

The more aggressive policy recently adopted by Saudi Arabia and the greater degree of coordination among Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar—and their proxies among the rebels—seem to be having an effect. Several victories in the field make it conceivable that the Syrian regime might be near defeat. At the same time, Hezbollah has been making a more aggressive effort to establish itself in southern Syria. If these two trends persist and intensify, they could break the deadlock in the country and confront Israel with new choices. Under such circumstances, Israel’s best bet would be to adhere to the successful policy of the past four years and watch from the sidelines as Saudi Arabia and Turkey defeat Iran in their proxy war. Whether that will be possible is another question.

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