Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert
Last updated: March 10, 2012
Josef Olmert: Israel's calculus about Syria; the devil we know?

"There is the fear that continuing instability in Syria poses grave risks for Israel"

Israel is front-page story all over the world due to the extensive interest in the possibility of a military strike against Iran. This is an inevitable outcome of a well-orchestrated campaign by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who also has to look behind the shoulder to neighboring Syria. The developing civil war there confronts Israel with risky possibilities as well as with promising prospects, and altogether is a source of much concern which has a lot to do with the Iranian situation.

The Israeli deliberations about Syria should be viewed in the context of three major considerations. First, there is the overall attitude towards the ‘’Arab Spring’’. The well-reputed Israeli intelligence community was taken by complete surprise by what happened in Egypt, where President Mubarak’s regime seemed so pivotal to Israel’s overall Middle East strategy, and so it was with regard to Syria.

What may put it in due perspective is the fact, that the Arab regimes themselves were unaware of the situation, and a dramatic evidence for this was provided by Bashar Assad of all people, who on 31 January 2011, told the Wall Street Journal that Syria was and would remain stable…  When confronted with the new situation, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in particular, was faced with a dilemma. He promoted for years the notion that it was the absence of democracy that prevented peace between the Arab states and Israel. One of his mentors, Nathan Sharansky published a book widely developing this thesis. No other than President George W. Bush publicly stated that he was greatly influenced by this book. So, in the moment of truth, when witnessing the demise of a friendly, non-democratic regime in Egypt, Netanyahu blinked and clearly preferred its continuation. When elections were held in Egypt, and The Muslim Brotherhood won, ’’we told you so’’ was the prevailing reaction. With regard to Syria, there wasn’t even a slight dilemma.

The Israelis do not know the Syrian opposition. There are some unverified press reports about contacts between Israeli officials and Syrian opposition figures, but the Israelis are very careful to deny them all, if not for other reason than to deprive the Assad regime of a propaganda opportunity. At any rate, the dominant notion in Israel is that elections in Syria may lead to another Muslim Brotherhood victory, surely not a pleasant prospect.

Then there is the fear that continuing instability in Syria poses grave risks for Israel. The Ba’ath-Assad regimes in Syria prided themselves for being “the heart of Arabism”, the standard-bearers of the struggle against Israel. But in actual terms, the rhetoric was not matched by actions. The Syrian-Israeli border has been the most peaceful of Israel’s borders for almost four decades. Throughout these years, successive Israeli governments came to respect Hafiz Assad first and later Bashar Assad as pragmatic, rational leaders who knew that the balance of power between the two countries was so much against Syria, and were eager to refrain from a war that could put an end to their regime. The Israelis, while constantly on the guard about Syria, especially monitoring their huge cache of chemical warheads have come to believe that a war with Syria while possible was improbable. This was in sharp contrast to the days preceding the accession of Hafiz Assad to power, when instability in Syria led to one Middle East war in June of 1967, and to almost another one in Jordan in September 1970. However, the current chaotic situation in Syria bears the risk that the chemical warheads will fall to the hands of militant elements, such as Hizballah or Al-Qaida, infiltrating from Iraq to Syria. Israel is also aware of the reports, never officially acknowledged by Syria, that Bashar Assad would resort, in his moment of utmost despair, to the ‘’Samson option’’ and attack her, creating his version of Armageddon. From an Israeli perspective, Armageddon is possible, but then it relates to Iran and the possibility of an Iranian Bomb.  It is the Iranian situation that in the final analysis dominates Israel’s calculus about Syria.

Any scenario of attack on Iran, whether by Israel alone or in conjunction with the US, entails the possibility of Iranian retaliation using Hamas, Hizballah and Syria with their vast arsenal of missiles. It is doubtful whether Hamas leadership will endanger its very existence in Gaza by joining such an adventure. With regard to Hizballah which is a stooge of Iran and Syria, the likelihood of them attacking Israel is more realistic, but timing is of the essence. As the Syrian regime is getting weaker by the day, so does Hizballah, whose very dominant position in Lebanon derives to a large extent from the alliance with Syria. A fall of the Assad regime may be the beginning of the end of Hizballah’s grip over Lebanese politics. It follows therefore that Israel prefers to see a quick downfall of Assad.

Under current circumstances, the view from Jerusalem is that a Middle East without Bashar Assad, the devil they knew until now, and with a very weakened Hizballah struggling for its own survival, is a major defeat to Iran, henceforth another incentive to those there who want to use the military option against Iran.

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