Situation in Syria and Israel's Interests

The situation in Syria is fraught with dangers. One of the most serious ones is misreading and misinterpreting the motives and intentions of the various actors even if many of them maintain hotlines and de-conflictions mechanisms. 

Ever since the beginning of the civil war in Syria Israel strictly followed the policy of non-intervention and mostly remained indifferent to the fate of the Assad regime. Many in Israel criticized this policy as the number of the dead, injured, refugees and victims of the use of chemical weapons grew dramatically. In public statements as indeed in its diplomatic contacts, primarily with the U.S and Russia, Israel made it clear that its concern is the attempt by sub-state organizations and Iran exploiting the situation and establishing permanent bases in Syria. It is the logic on which Moscow and Jerusalem built their ongoing political and military dialogue. That process is important to Israel which views Russia as the major factor in the Syrian situation. 

The missiles attack by the U.S, France and the U.K has not changed these fundamentals .The U.S is Israel’s ally but the policies and actions of the U.S in Syria are hardly influenced by Israel. There may be several explanations to the action the U.S took on the night between 13-14 April. None of them has to do with Israel and its concerns in Syria. Furthermore, the fact that the operation was of a limited scope, isolated, pertaining solely to the use of chemicals by the Syrian regime and coupled with a repeated assertion by President Trump of his desire to pull out of Syria is hardly serving the Israeli agenda in Syria.

The dissipating US desire to deploy forces in Syrian leaves Russia as the only participant in the evolving drama in Syria with a foot on Syrian territory to which Israel can address its concerns. That is an asset on one hand but also evidence to the difficulties Israel is facing in dealing with the developing situation in Syria. Israel is one consideration for Moscow in the Syrian version of the Hungarian Cube. Moscow may have turned its eyes away from some of the Israeli actions and ignore them. It however showed recently displeasure at actions aimed at Iranian targets attributed to Israel. There is definitely a clash of interests, threat perceptions and a no agreement of how to handle the Iranian presence, designs and operations in Syria.

The Iranian presence in Syria may pose the most difficult and complicated threat to Israel in half a century. By establishing a military base in Syria it opens a second front connected to the one it studiously developed in Lebanon by arming its proxy, the Hizbullah. In retrospection, it may have been Israel’s strategic mistake to allow Iran to create the threat in Lebanon but it certainly amplifies the current dilemma in dealing with Iran's similar ambitions in Syria. Clearly, Israel cannot afford Syria turning into another base of operation serving Iranian strategic plans against Israel. For Russia, as seen from Jerusalem, the Iranian project in Syria is a problem but of a different magnitude and not necessarily requiring immediate or decisive responses. A certain level of tension between Iran and Israel may be tolerable for Moscow. An escalating spiral of action and counter-actions with a potential of becoming a major confrontation is a distraction if not more to Russian interests in Syria. 

It is in the interests of Israel to restore and strengthen the dialogue with Moscow in spite or precisely because of Moscow’s ability to talk to Iran (and Turkey as we witnessed recently). It should enable Russia to exert whatever influence it has in Teheran. But Israel, besides conveying to Russia the full scale of its threat perception and agreeing to Russian diplomacy to remove the Iranian threat, has to clarify its determination to prevent the repetition of its mistake in Lebanon, this time in Syria.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.