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The United States and Israel vs. the Syria of Bashar al-Assad: Challenges, Dilemmas, and Options

Policy Analysis, Volume 23, No .4 (October 2020), INSS – The Institute for National Security Studies The crisis that began in March 2011 with the outbreak of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now in its tenth year. The intensity and complexity of the crisis derive to a great extent from the fact that almost from the start it has been conducted at three levels: domestic, regional, and international. The United States and Israel are among the countries involved in the crisis; they are influenced by it and affect how it unfolds. At the same time, although Israel has profound interests in Syria and considerable military strength, and the United States is still a superpower with important interests in the Middle East, so far neither has played the key role in Syria of which it is capable. United States Policy toward Syria Thus far United States policy in the Syrian crisis has been shaped by two Presidents—Barack Obama and Donald Trump—who were both hard-pressed to fashion a clear, coherent, and effective policy. The Obama administration saw the Syrian revolt in the context of the “Arab Spring.” When the scale of opposition to the regime and its brutal conduct became clear, the US under Obama began to express support for the opposition, including support for the resignation of Bashar al-Assad, but the administration was determined to avoid any direct military involvement in Syria. Barack Obama believed he was elected in part to end long-term, expensive, and divisive American military involvement in two Middle East arenas (Afghanistan and Iraq), and he was deterred even from limited military involvement in Syria by the belief that this was a slippery slope that could lead to an extended and expensive third involvement in the Middle East. This policy continued even when it became clear that the civil war in Syria was a threat to regional stability and the regime was committing war crimes against the Syrian population. This issue reached a dramatic climax in 2013, when Bashar al-Assad crossed what Obama himself had defined, just a year earlier, as a “red line,” with massive use of chemical weapons against the civilian population. Over time, the issue of policy toward the Syrian rebellion has become more complex because Islamist and jihadi elements came to play a leading role in the revolt, and a strong link emerged between United States policy toward Iran and Iran’s deep military involvement in Syria. Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015 has likewise been a formative development. Obama’s last minute decision to refrain from responding to the crossing of his red line significantly weakened the moderate opposition in Syria and encouraged Russia’s decision to exploit the vacuum created by American passivity and send forces to Syria, so that ultimately, together with Iran, Russia would decide the military campaign between the regime and the opposition. The Obama administration tried to shape a political solution to the crisis—taking account of Assad’s refusal to participate in talks with the opposition or to make any concessions—and enlist Russian cooperation with US policy. President Obama ruled out the option that took shape in 2012 to build the Free Syrian Army as a force that could successfully confront the regime, and subsequently was satisfied with providing partial military aid, largely indirect, to those cast as “moderate rebels.” The Obama administration’s pressure on Putin’s Russia ultimately led to Russian willingness in December 2015 to support Security Council Resolution 2254, which outlined a roadmap for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The resolution was sufficiently vague to allow Russia to support it without abandoning Bashar al-Assad, even though it discussed the establishment of a “transitional government” and the start of a political process involving the opposition. Support for Resolution 2254 has remained a foundation of United States policy since December 2015. The year before, in 2014, there was an important turning point in the Syrian conflict when the Islamic State entered the picture, replacing al-Qaeda as the main jihadi force in the Middle East and sending a threat of terror, particularly to Europe, but also to the United States. The Islamic State set up a quasi-state (caliphate) on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border and posed a threat to the stability of other countries in the region, above all Jordan, and to the very political order established in the heart of the Middle East after the First World War. In light of these threats, the United States formed a large international coalition to defeat the organization. The US participated in the warfare principally by means of an aerial force, and for ground fighting relied above all on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab militia, which was assisted by American advisors and special forces. While maintaining this policy, the United States continued to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian opposition’s revolt against the Assad regime. The United States and Russia collaborated in the fight against the Islamic State, but with respect to the opposition’s struggle against the Syrian regime, Russia took the lead following its military intervention, while pushing the US into a secondary and even embarrassingly weak role. The Trump administration, which took office in January 2017, tended to criticize and belittle the policies of its predecessor, but with respect to the Syrian crisis, adopted the same principles: a struggle against the Islamic State and unwillingness to be dragged into the internal civil war. Moreover, President Trump was displeased with the presence of some 2000 US soldiers in northeast Syria, and expressed a desire to bring them home. At this point, serious differences emerged between the President and a large portion of the US national security establishment, which ascribed and continues to ascribe great importance to an ongoing limited US military presence in northeast Syria, and to a lesser degree, in the east. This approach holds that the military intervention or presence is negligible compared to the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when there were clashes with Syrian forces or Russian mercenaries, the United States suffered few losses, and the cost-benefit balance remained decidedly positive. Unlike Obama, Trump punished the Assad regime with a rocket attack for its additional use of chemical weapons, this remained a one-time action. The tension between the President and the heads of the security establishment peaked when Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria in December 2018. Secretary of Defense Mattis was among the critics of the decision and how it was taken (in a telephone call with Turkish President Erdogan), and resigned from his position. Trump ultimately reversed this decision, but returned to this course in October 2019 when he agreed to a Turkish military operation against the Kurds—US allies—and limited the number of US soldiers stationed in northeast Syria. The elements in Washington that consistently supported a continued military presence in the region managed to persuade the President—helped by the argument that they were protecting oil reserves—to leave a force of some 600 US troops in Syria, with the justified claim regarding the need to maintain the achievements of the fight against the Islamic State. The alliance between the United States and the Syrian Kurdish YPG (the nucleus of the larger Arab-Kurdish SDF) is a source of tension between the United States and Turkey. The militia and the PYD organization to which it belongs are the Syrian proxy of the radical Kurdish organization PKK, which is active in Turkey. Erdogan considers the PKK to pose a major risk to Turkish security and is furious over US cooperation with an element that he sees as hostile and dangerous. A central characteristic of United States policy toward the Syrian regime in the Trump era is the tension between the President’s personal conduct and the attempt by the national security establishment to formulate a clear and methodical policy on this issue. As a rule, American policy, particularly in the Trump era, is coordinated with Israeli policy. Israel would like to see a tougher and more active policy in view of Iranian entrenchment in Syria. It supports a continued US military presence in Syria, but is very cautious in its contacts with Washington and its announcements concerning President Trump. The United States supports Israel’s struggle against Iran’s military presence and activities in Syria (described below), and in March 2019 recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. In point of fact, Israel did not annex the Golan Heights, but in 1981 applied Israeli law to the area. The move by Washington was intended to be an act of support for the Netanyahu government, as well as another expression of hostility to the Bashar al-Assad regime. A central characteristic of United States policy toward the Syrian regime in the Trump era is the tension between the President’s personal conduct and the attempt by the national security establishment to formulate a clear and methodical policy on this issue. The President has twice spontaneously decided on far-reaching moves in the Syrian context, and both involved his controversial relations with President Erdogan. A similar pattern emerged in talks between Trump and Putin that took place without involving the US national security establishment. Moreover, Trump’s tendency to act gingerly with respect to authoritarian rulers like Putin and Erdogan also emerges in the Syrian context. In the face of this style, Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, undertook a prominent attempt to shape and present a methodical policy over the Syrian crisis. In a lecture at Stanford University in January 2018, Tillerson listed what he saw as the main points of US policy in Syria: maintaining a military presence, continuing the struggle against the jihadi organizations, limiting the fighting in Syria, supporting the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and thwarting Iranian expansionism. However, shortly after delivering this talk, Tillerson was fired. The main professional element in the US establishment, representing the ongoing attempt to shape and promote an orderly policy in the Syrian crisis, is Ambassador James Jeffrey, who was brought out of retirement to coordinate US policy in Syria. Jeffrey himself presented the main points of his policy at a lecture at the Atlantic Council in which he defined three aims of the US in Syria: long-term defeat of the Islamic State; “a changed regime” (as distinct from regime change, since Jeffrey and others are careful not to speak explicitly about removing Assad, even if that is what they mean); and removal of the Iranian ground forces and their ability to fire long-range missiles from Syria. Israel and the Syrian crisis The Syrian civil revolt that erupted in March 2011 ended a twenty-year period of Israel-Syria dynamics, where alongside enmity and fighting there were also peace talks. Until the outbreak of the revolt, the Netanyahu government was conducting indirect talks with the Assad regime through US mediators (Fred Hoff and Dennis Ross). The Syrian civil war and the ensuing developments removed the option of a peace arrangement between the two countries, and Israel was left with the need to formulate a policy in view of the multiple dimensions of the Syrian crisis. In the spring of 2011, when the extent of the rebellion against the Assad regime became clearer, Israel had two main options: one, to intervene by helping the moderate opposition and offering humanitarian aid to the population; and the other, to stay on the sidelines and look after Israel’s vital interests. The temptation to help the opposition and bring about the replacement of Assad was palpable. Five years previously, during the Second Lebanon War, the threat to Israel from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah triangle was intense. The replacement of the Assad regime with a regime linked to the West and pragmatic Arab countries would have dealt a serious blow to Iran’s regional policy, and contributed to a changed situation in Lebanon and an improvement in Israel’s geopolitical situation. Mitigating the temptation to intervene were the weakness of the opposition, the early role played by Islamist and jihadi groups in the revolt, and above all the Israeli fear—a lesson from the First Lebanon War—of any attempt to intervene in shaping the internal politics of neighboring Arab states. Therefore Israel preferred to avoid direct involvement in the fighting in Syria while defining the conditions and situations (red lines) in which it would intervene: one, in response to fire or an attack on Israel or the Golan Heights from Syrian territory; two, to prevent the transfer of advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah; three, to prevent weapons of mass destruction (chemical or biological) from falling into the hands of terrorists. Over the years this initial policy became more complex in view of new developments, including the rise of the Islamic State and the jihadi terrorist threat it represented, the massive entry of Iran and Hezbollah into the fighting, and the Russian military involvement in 2015. Israel began providing humanitarian aid covertly to residents of the border area on the Golan Heights and, in view of Hezbollah attempts to entrench itself in the area, moved to a policy of supporting opposition forces on the Syrian Golan Heights, foiled attempts several times to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and developed a coordination system (deconflicting) with Russia, to prevent clashes between the Israeli Air Force and the Russian Air Force and its air defense units stationed in Syria. Assad’s relative victory over the opposition with the help of Russia and Iran in December 2016 (the end of the battle for Aleppo) and the regime’s efforts to restore its hold on all of Syria presented Israel with the need to grapple with the question of the presence of the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias close to its border. Israel was prepared for the regime’s military presence and the return to the relations described in the 1974 disengagement treaties, but not for the presence of Iranian, Hezbollah, and Shiite militia forces along the border. These issues became more pressing in 2018, when the extent of Iranian ambitions to build military infrastructure in Syria became clear. In previous years Iran viewed Syria primarily as a strategic hinterland and a supply route for its store of rockets and missiles in Lebanon, built with Hezbollah’s help. Iran’s achievement in saving the Assad regime fed the Iranian appetite and led to a policy of striving to establish a strategic infrastructure in Syria similar to what it had built in Lebanon. The Israeli government was firmly determined to avoid a return to the mistaken policy that allowed Iran over time to build a stockpile of some 150,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon. For Israel, of particular concern was the Iranian effort to place precision guided missiles in Syria from which it could attack strategic targets in Israel. In 2018 Iran also sent an armed drone from a Syrian base into Israeli territory, where it was brought down by the Israeli Air Force. Israel’s retaliation signaled the start of an ongoing series of Israeli attacks against Iranian military targets, stockpiles of advanced equipment, and attempts to build an operational and military industrial infrastructure in Syria. Israel’s efforts proceeded with the US blessing, while Russia in effect refrained from intervening in the Israeli-Iranian military struggle in Syria. There was a temporary reversal in this Russian policy in September 2018, when the Syrian air defense brought down a Russian military aircraft. Russia reacted strongly to Israel, accusing it of responsibility for the incident. As a result, Israeli military activity in Syria was somewhat disrupted for a few months, but eventually the crisis was resolved and Moscow returned to its passive policy toward the Israeli-Iranian struggle. Russia is not a party to the demand and goal of Israel and the United States for Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria, but there is sufficient tension and rivalry within the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria to stop Russia from interfering in Israel’s actions, as long as Israel is careful not to damage Russian targets or, for the most part, targets of the Assad regime as well. Current Challenges The Syrian crisis continues with no solution in sight. The Assad regime now controls some 60 percent of the country’s territory, while the Kurdish militias and their Arab partners (the SDF) control about 25 percent, in the northeast. The area around Idlib and parts of it neighboring regions are the last territory still controlled by rebel organizations, mostly jihadi. Turkey has effectively annexed large areas around the border. The Islamic State, which was defeated by the international coalition, has returned to operations, particularly in the desert regions of central and eastern Syria. The opposition is renewing its activity, mainly in southern Syria. Six million Syrians are outside the country—about a million have been granted refuge in Europe and the United States, while the rest are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. A similar number of Syrians are displaced within the country. The Assad regime is refusing any attempt to reach an agreement or implement political reforms that could end the crisis, and is therefore unable to receive any Western aid that would allow reconstruction of infrastructures and the economy. Against this background, and the continued activity and entrenchment of Russia and Iran in Syria, the regime’s aim to take control of the Idlib region, and Turkish-Kurdish tensions, Syria remains the focus of a crisis that threatens the stability of its neighbors and the security of Europe. For example, Turkey objects to a military campaign by the regime in Idlib with Russian support, because this could send a further wave of refugees into its territory. Turkey itself is using the large refugee population in the country as leverage to exert pressure on Europe, with the threat of sending a new wave of refugees into Europe who would ignite a crisis similar to that of 2015. At any time, the Israeli-Iranian military struggle in Syria could spiral out of control. Hezbollah for its part is trying to create a new equation of deterrence toward Israel, by declaring that any Israeli attack on Hezbollah personnel in Syria will lead to a response on the Lebanese front. Both the United States and Israel are facing the need to formulate and conduct policy that can handle these issues and challenges. United States Dilemmas The main issue under discussion in the US establishment is the continued military presence in northeast Syria. At this time, President Trump has relented and agreed to a limited military presence in the Kurdish area and the border crossing with Jordan at al-Tanf, but if he is re-elected in November, he might return to his original goal of putting an end to the US military presence in Syria. Another issue concerns relations with Turkey, in the broader regional context (aggressive Turkish policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, involvement in Libya, acquisition of ground-to-air missiles from Russia) and with respect to US cooperation with the Kurdish militias in northeast Syria. The willingness of the administration to allow a US oil company to sign an agreement with the Kurds on the use of the oil reserves in their territory is a sign of continuing American support for the alliance with the Kurds, in spite of strong Turkish opposition. The US position on the need for a political solution to the Syrian problem is pitted against a reality in which the process underway in Geneva, attended by 150 Syrians (50 representing the regime, 50 representing the opposition, and 50 representing civil society), is failing to produce any practical result. Putin’s Russia is also interested in a political solution, but is not applying any pressure to speak of on Assad. In Assad’s eyes, there is no room for any concession, however small. As he sees it, he has won the civil war, his policy proved successful, and any concession would amount to the first step on a slippery slope. Assad and the hard nucleus of his regime are also not interested in the return of Sunni refugees from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, and they are more comfortable in a population with a larger percentage of Alawites. In this situation, the chances of receiving significant aid for reconstruction—from Western countries or international economic organizations such as the World Bank—are minimal. Russia and Iran wish to derive economic gain from Syria’s reconstruction, but they do not have the means or the desire to invest their own resources. The United States is granting humanitarian aid to the Syrian population and trying to ensure that the aid reaches the population and does not remain with the regime, but it sees the continuation of economic and diplomatic pressure as the main leverage that will ultimately bring about not only the fall of the regime, but also the end of the Russian and Iranian presence. Additional leverage by the United States over the Syrian regime is sanctions. In June 2020 the Caesar Act passed by the Congress came into force, tightening the sanctions on the Assad regime. Now the results of the US elections in November come into play. Trump himself in his unique way has always striven for talks and a deal with Putin. A victory for Biden and a return to a Democratic administration could take US relations with Russia and Iran back to the Obama era. At present, the United States and Russia are trying to reach more limited understandings in the military sphere, in order to prevent undesirable clashes in the areas of active fighting in the northeast and northwest of the country. The option of a political arrangement with Syria is off the table, because any arrangement with the Assad regime involving withdrawal will be unacceptable to the Israeli political establishment and public, and also because US recognition of the annexation of the Golan effectively demolished any hypothetical option for an Israeli-Syrian arrangement. In the summer of 2020, Charles Lister published a short monograph titled Syria Still Matters. Lister argues that the ongoing crisis in Syria remains a vital regional and international focus, and outlined a roadmap for managing United States policy on this issue. His main argument is the need for continued limited US military presence in Syria. Like other experts and members of the administration, Lister believes that a limited presence, which has so far led to almost no American casualties, is a “cheap” investment yielding significant assets. Israeli Policy At the moment Israel does not appear to have any attractive or realistic options for the policy described above. Intervention in the Syrian crisis does not appear practical, especially at a time when there is no effective opposition to the regime, except for the Islamist and jihadi concentration around Idlib and local activity in the south. In the past, several Israeli experts raised the suggestion that Israel could ally with the Kurds in northeast Syria, but the benefit and practicality of such a move now seem slight. The option of a political arrangement with Syria is off the table, because any arrangement with the Assad regime involving withdrawal will be unacceptable to the Israeli political establishment and public, and also because US recognition of the annexation of the Golan effectively demolished any hypothetical option for an Israeli-Syrian arrangement. Therefore, Israel’s efforts in Syria are expected to continue to focus on thwarting Iranian entrenchment. A significant challenge to Israeli policy is the effort by Hezbollah to conflate the Lebanese and Syrian arenas and create a deterrence equation whereby any Israeli attack on Hezbollah fighters in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, will lead to a response on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Israel’s restraint in the summer of 2020 in the face of Hezbollah’s attempts to carry out a retaliatory attack on the Lebanese border for the killing of a Hezbollah member in an Israeli attack in Syria illustrates the depth of the problem. The regional dimension of the Syrian crisis is currently dormant, but the potential for a reawakening exists. If this occurs, Israel could find new partners in the Gulf for the effort to drive Iran out of Syria and weaken its hold on Lebanon. At its height, the civil war in Syria was also the scene of a regional struggle, above all between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which to a large extent echoed the struggle between the moderate Sunni axis and the radical Shiite axis. Israel’s sympathies lay with the moderate Sunni axis, but this did not translate into active involvement. In recent years the regional picture has become more complex with the increasing importance of a third axis consisting of Turkey, Qatar, and organizations that support the Muslim Brotherhood. The normalization of Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will reinforce the cooperation between Israel and the Sunni axis against both Iran and Turkey. The regional dimension of the Syrian crisis is currently dormant, but the potential for a reawakening exists. If this occurs, Israel could find new partners in the Gulf for the effort to drive Iran out of Syria and weaken its hold on Lebanon.


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