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Situation Assessment 11 May, 2011

THE ISRAELI POSITION TOWARDS THE SYRIAN INTIFADA

Keyword

Faris Abo Hilal

Faris Abo Hilal is a researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. His studies and reports appear in peer-reviewed journals and Arab research centers, and he writes opinion articles for a number of newspapers and Arabic-language websites. He currently works as a researcher and producer of political programs and documentaries with Sage Media in London. He worked as a part-time researcher at Zaytuna Center for Studies and Consultancies in Beirut in 2006 and 2007.

This paper presents Israel's position towards the Syrian uprising by examining statements made by Israeli officials, as well as research and analysis published in Israel. Syria is the first country that borders Israel,  is not linked to it by peace treaty, and has been subjected to a true test of its stability, which in turn has major potential political and security implications on Tel Aviv. As such, the Israelis are following the situation in Syria with great interest. Some Israelis hold the view that the Syrian intifada could produce security risks on Israel's northern border which has been secure for several decades, fearing the possibility that "irresponsible elements" would take control over Syria's weapons arsenal if Bashar al-Assad's regime is toppled. Others, however, see a regime change in Damascus as serving Israeli interests because the effect would be Iran's loss of its key regional ally, ultimately depriving the Palestinian resistance movements of one of their most prominent backers.

INTRODUCTION

The Arab popular revolutions are an event of great strategic importance with far reaching effects on the future of the region, and in the formulation of relations between its states and peoples. Despite the global nature of the impact of the Arab revolutions, the countries of the Middle East are those most affected by the developments due to geopolitical factors and the complex web of relations and interests in the region. As such, neighboring states monitor the events because they are concerned with the events' potential impact on their domestic politics and their relation with neighboring countries.

Israel seems to be one of the most important players affected by developments in the Arab revolutions. For this reason, its military, political, and academic establishments are preoccupied with monitoring these developments, studying their potential results on Israel's relationship with the surrounding Arab countries, and developing forward-looking strategies for how to deal with new realities that will be created by the Arab revolutions.

SPECIFICITY OF SYRIA

Israel followed the events of the Tunisian revolution, which ended the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, examining the possible negative consequences of the fall of this regime. With an even keener interest, it followed the events of the Egyptian revolution as it placed Israeli political and security elite in state of panic given their serious fear of dramatic changes in Egyptian policy towards Israel in the post-Mubarak era.

With the launch of protests in Syria this past March, Israeli politicians and analysts expressed a great interest in the uprising and its developments. This interest was based on the specificity posed by the Syrian case for Israel, expressed by Israeli analysts around the following points:[1]

  • Syria is a state adjacent to Israel, and, therefore, any political changes in Syria will necessarily affect Israel militarily and politically;
  • Unlike Egypt and Jordan, Syria has not signed a peace treaty with Israel, and, as such, is officially at war with Israel;
  • Syria has close ties with other countries and organizations that Israel considers to be an "axis of evil," namely Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance factions, particularly Hamas;
  • Syria, according to Israeli claims, has an arsenal of advanced missile weapons that pose a threat to Israel's security.

THE INTIFADA OPENS DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE "SYRIAN OPTION"

With every crisis that obstructs the progress of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, the Israeli political and media arenas witness considerable debate about the so-called "Syrian option". This "option" calls for the bypassing of the Palestinian negotiations track to reach a separate peace agreement with Syria by restoring the Golan Heights to Syria in return for permanent peace and security, on the Syrian border, for Israel, thereby ensuring the dissolution of the alliance between Syria, Iran, the Palestinian resistance forces, and Hezbollah.

Since the first day of protests, the Syrian uprising has released a flood of debate on the "Syrian option" in Israel. Some Israeli analysts argue that Bashar al-Assad's diminishing ability to maneuver is all the more reason to appreciate the importance of the Syrian option. The Syrian president's diminished room for maneuver, they argue, makes the signing of any peace treaty with Israel more difficult for him, given that what he is really in need of is processes that will increase his legitimacy.[2]

Furthermore, the absence of a peace treaty with Syria deprives Israel of its right to demand that the international community force any Syrian regime to adhere to such a treaty in the way that it has the military council governing Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak regime.[3]

Alternatively, some analysts reject the "Syria option" and have reveled in satisfaction at the uprising in Syria, seeing it as a confirmation of their point of view that giving back the Golan Heights would render Israeli citizens vulnerable to potential attacks from the Bashar al-Assad regime, a regime, in their opinion, that has proven its "brutality and lack of sincerity." A new regime in Damascus would be no guarantee of security as it would be one whose strategy of dealing with Israel is unknown.[4]

ISRAELI CONFUSION ABOUT THE SYRIAN INTIFADA

The Israeli political, media, and academic arenas have witnessed many discussions about the political and security ramifications of the Syrian uprising on Israel. Israeli commentaries and analyses of the Syrian uprising reveal a striking Israeli consensus on the idea that any radical change in Syria will have a direct impact on the situation in Tel Aviv, even if there is no agreement on the nature of this impact, whether or not politically beneficial for Israel.

Unlike the Egyptian revolution, in which most Israelis agreed on the seriousness of the political and security consequences on the Jewish state, there has been a marked state of uncertainty in evaluating the potential consequences of the Syrian intifada. Israeli politicians and analysts are divided between those who see a great opportunity for Israel, and those who warn of serious dangers. Meanwhile, some analysts like Akiva Eldar, who writes for Haaretz, argue that no respected analyst would risk answering questions concerning the effects of the Syrian intifada on Israel,[5] a position echoed by Uri Hitner in the newspaper Israel Today.[6]

The confusion of the Israeli position in evaluating the situation in Syria is reflected in the official statements about these events in comparison to comments made during the Egyptian revolution. While Israel took a clear position supporting the Egyptian regime in the face of the revolution, applying pressure on the United States to prevent the fall of Mubarak and his regime, Israeli officials declined to make clear and specific statements on the Syrian intifada. A major exception was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who demanded that the international community submit Syria to the same treatment to which it has subjected the Gaddafi regime.[7] His ministry has issued a report accusing Iran and Hezbollah of helping the Syrian regime in repressing the demonstrations.[8]

Israeli President Shimon Peres considered the democratic changes in the Arab world as bearing potentially positive results for Israel, as it would be dealing with "better neighbors". He partly counteracted this, however,  by stating that these changes could pose a major dilemma for Israel.[9]

The comments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the subject appear quite conservative when compared with his statements on the Egyptian revolution. In response to a question posed during an online video interview, he said that he would be happy if Syria became a democracy because "democracy is the friend of peace."[10]

It can be argued that Peres and Netanyahu's statements welcoming democracy in Syria fall within the framework of internal and external media consumption, especially since the way Israel responded to the Egyptian revolution clearly showed that Tel Aviv's position towards democracy in the Arab world generally stems from Israel's political and security interests, and not, as some have claimed, from a principled position of support for democracy. This applies to both the official spokespeople and the media alike.

The Israeli government tried to discourage the Obama administration from supporting popular Egyptian demands to overthrow the Mubarak regime in order to replace it with a democratic system by launching a diplomatic and media campaign warning of the dangers of "extremist elements' exploitation" of democracy in order to take power in Egypt, and the threat of a loss of stability in the region in case of Mubarak's fall. The writings of Israeli commentators and analysts overflowed with praises and defenses of Mubarak, condemning the US position to not support him in the face of popular revolution. Israeli efforts reached the point in which former president of the Meretz Party, Yossi Beilin, warned Obama that he would lose his presidency in the next election if he abandoned Mubarak, as happened with President Carter after the abandonment of the Iranian Shah in 1979.[11] This is a clear demonstration that Israel is not interested in the issue of democracy in the Arab world , but that it is preoccupied, first and foremost, with its security, as well as political and economic interests.

ISRAELI CONCERNS REGARDING THE SYRIAN INTIFADA

Some of the official statements from Israel, as well as political analyses published by newspapers, think tanks, and research centers, have discussed several of the potential risks faced by Israel as an effect of the Syrian uprising:

  • The Syrian regime's attempts to fabricate a crisis with Israel-despite the relative calm currently characterizing the Syrian-Israeli border-in order to deflect the internal pressure that it currently faces.[12] Certain Israeli military and intelligence leaders and agencies have warned against this potential threat, including former army chief of staff Dan Halutz (who made comments to this effect in an interview for Israel's Channel 10), and the head of the security division of the Israeli Defense Ministry, General Amos Gilad,[13] as well as other military intelligence officials.[14]

  • The transfer of the tensions from the internal Syrian arena to Israel. Some Israeli analysts fear that the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) may try to spark conflict with Israel from the Gaza Strip in order to unify public opinion in Syria and Iran against Israel. This possibility has been pointed out by retired general and member of the Israel's Security Council, Oded Tira; he claims that Hamas values its alliance with Syria and Iran far more than it does the freedom of the Syrian people.[15]

  • The possibility that Syrian missile or "chemical" weapons arsenals may be transferred to organizations that Israel considers "terrorist" organizations in the event that the Syrian intifada turns into a situation of instability. Several Israeli figures and agencies have warned of this possibility, most notably the former head of military intelligence, Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin[16]; in addition, Israel expert on Arab affairs, Anshel Pfeffer, and senior officers in the Israeli General Staff who raised questions about the Scud missiles installed by the Syrian army in the strategically important town of Dara'a strategy,[17] the Syrian city that has witnessed the most intense level of protest against the Syrian regime.

    Israel tried to exploit the events to put diplomatic pressure on Moscow in an attempt to bring about the cancellation of the 2007 deal in which the Russians were to provide Damascus with two units of "B -800 Yachont" anti-ship missiles, using the pretext of Israeli fear that these rockets would end up in "enemy hands."[18]

  • The possibility of tension on the Israeli-Syrian border in the event of the collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime that, according to most Israeli analysts, has played an important role in maintaining calm at those borders, as well as the de facto détente between Israel and Syria, despite the official and declared state of war between the two countries.

    In this context, the Washington Post, a United States newspaper, quoted a Netanyahu government minister's remarks, claiming that Israel knows Bashar al-Assad as it knew his father, and realizes that both Syrian presidents are responsible for making Israel's Syria border by far the calmest of Israel's borders.[19]

    Israeli newspapers have also published many opinions and commentaries that reflect the view that the survival of the Assad regime serves the interest of calm with Syria, especially given the inability to predict the position towards Israel that a new regime coming to power in Damascus, as a result of the uprising, may take.[20] This has been expressed by several Israeli analyses as "sticking to the devil you know".
  • The absence of direct channels of communication with Damascus, in contrast with the direct diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. This is a factor which may prevent communication with Damascus that could make arrangements to reduce the risk and insecurity stemming from any negative repercussions of the Syria intifada on Israel.[21]
  • Fear that the "Muslim Brotherhood" may take power in Syria as a result of the uprising. Many of the Israeli analyses saw the Brotherhood as representing the most organized constituent group of the Syrian opposition, and the most influential in driving the protests, and, therefore, the group most likely to assume power if the Syrian regime collapses.[22]

    Some Israeli analysts frame the seriousness of the Muslim Brotherhood's arrival to power in Syria as lying in a scenario in which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would seek to form a broad alliance hostile to Israel with a post-Mubarak Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government, and the Hamas government in Gaza. This would place Israel in the midst of sea of "radical Islam," according to Israeli analyst Ben Caspit writing in Ma'ariv.[23] Caspit believes that such a scenario necessitates an increase in Israel's defense budget, and a preparedness to live in the region without a hope of peace. Other Israeli political analysts, such as Yossi Alpher, stress that that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Syria would spell the end of the possibility of Syrian-Israeli peace.[24]
  • The likelihood of increased Iranian influence in Lebanon so as to fill the vacuum that would be left behind by the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the end of Syria's influence in Lebanon. According to some Israeli analysts, this would constitute a greater threat to Tel Aviv than the current Syrian influence.[25]

POTENTIAL ISRAELI GAINS FROM THE SYRIAN INTIFADA

Some of the analyses and studies published in Israel have outlined several of the gains that Israel may potentially reap as a result of the Syrian intifada. Among the most notable of these gains are:

  • According to the Annual Report of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, presented by General Aviv Kochavi on April 3, any decline in the strength of the Syrian regime is a blow to Iran, which continues its quest to increase its influence in various arenas by supporting its allies and proxies with money and weapons. The report stated that Iran is wary of the possible loss of Syria "as one of the main actors in the axis of evil,"[26] constituting a strategic achievement for Israel which sees any weakening of Iran as a political and military gain.

    Some Israeli analysts also hold that a weakening of the Syrian regime will provide opponents of the Iranian camp in Lebanon the opportunity to strengthen their position within the domestic Lebanese arena, something that would greatly serve Israeli interests.[27]

    A number of Israeli analysts believe that a change of regime in Syria may result in the emergence of a democratic system, one that "believes in peace" and works to sever its relations with the Palestinian resistance forces, Hezbollah and Iran. This would, therefore, serve Israeli interests. This view has been forwarded by former intelligence chief Amos Yadlin,[28] as well as a large number of Israeli analysts, especially those who view the protests in Syria though the lens of sectarianism, and consider it to be an uprising of the Sunni majority against the ruling Alawite minority. This leads them to believe that the victory of "the Sunnis" against the Alawite "Shiites" in Syria will make render the collapse of the Syrian alliance with "Shiite Iran" inevitable.[29]
  • According to the assessments of the Israeli Defense Forces' Northern Command, the Syrian army and security service's preoccupation with maintaining order and security control within the country will ease security pressures on Israel.[30] Furthermore, Israeli President Shimon Peres, during an inspection visit to the northern border of Israel near the Golan Heights, stated that any weakness in the Syrian regime will promote calm on Israel's "war front."[31]

CONCLUSION

Israel carefully monitors developments in Syria, given the specificity of Syria's importance to Israel as a state adjacent to Israel, and one with which it has no peace treaty, as is the case with Egypt and Jordan; this situation further complicates Israel's position because they lack direct communication channels between themselves and Damascus.

The latest developments in Syria constitute a major challenge for Israel due to Israel's inability to analyze the situation clearly, and the resulting difficulty in forming an accurate assessment of whether or not a change in the Syrian regime would serve Israeli interests, whether such a change would harm Israel in the short and long term. Ultimately, this limits Israel's "declared" position on the Syrian intifada to waiting in anticipation.

The uprising in Syria has reopened, once again, the discussions in Israel over the so-called "Syrian option" between those who consider the events to be a confirmation of the need to move towards the conclusion of a peace treaty with the Syrians and those who warn of the danger of surrendering the Golan Heights to a "wild" or "unstable" regime with regards to this regime's position on Israel.

The following becomes clear from the above analysis of Israeli positions towards the Syrian intifada:

  1. Israel would prefer that the Syrian regime not be peacefully overthrown;
  2. Israel would prefer not to respond to the Syrian people's demand for freedom and democracy;
  3. Israel hopes that the Syrian regime will resort to repressive and bloody responses to the intifada instead of entering into negotiations with the various shades of opposition, and reaching political solutions that ensure real and comprehensive reforms;
  4. Israel prefers the continuation of a Syrian regime founded on tyranny and corruption in its mode of governance, as evidenced by various Israeli statements to this effect;
  5. Israel would prefer that Syria descends into a state of sectarian conflict that would continue as long as possible, rather than a Syrian transformation from situation of struggle to one of freedom and democracy.

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  • [1] See for example Yossi Alfer: http://peacenow.org/entries/qa_yossi_alpher_march_28_2011; and the opening article of Haaretz on March 28, 2011: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/let-syria-take-care-of-itself-1.352250. 
  • [2] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-can-say-farewell-to-peace-1.351498.
  • [3] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/let-syria-take-care-of-itself-1.352250.
  • [4] Article by Uri Hitner in the "Israel Today" newspaper, republished by the Palestinian newspaper "al-Hayat al-Jadida": http://www.alhayat-j.com/newsite/details.php?opt=8&id=134274&cid=2182.
  • [5] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/arab-peace-initiative-is-another-missed-opportunity-for-israel-1.352252.
  • [6] "Feature" section in "Israel Today": http://www.malaf.info/?page=show_details&Id=4412&table=documents&CatId=45.
  • [7] http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/lieberman-west-should-deal-with-iran-and-syria-like-libya-1.351593.
  • [8] http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/israel-believes-iran-and-hezbollah-aiding-syria-crackdown-1.352086.
  • [9] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4049034,00.html.
  • [10] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/prime-minister-goes-on-youtube-to-field-questions-about-security-peace-shalit-and-his-travels-1.353185.
  • [11] "Israel Today" republished in "al-Quds al-‘Arabi": http://www.alquds.co.uk/scripts/print.asp?fname=data%5C2011%5C01%5C01-30%5C30e14.htm.
  • [12] Israeli military magazine "Bamahane" as cited in the Lebanese "al-Intiqad" website: http://www.alintiqad.com/essaydetails.php?eid=42043&cid=75.
  • [13] http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/F1506C4E-9CCA-488D-B0F2-1EAC5CD3771C.htm?GoogleStatID=9.
  • [14] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/idf-syria-may-provoke-israel-to-distract-from-domestic-unrest-1.351211.
  • [15] "Israel Today" April 4, 2011, as reported by Sama News Agency: http://www.samanews.com/index.php?act=Show&id=92119.
  • [16] http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=45316.
  • [17] "Most Noteworthy Analyses of the Events in Syria" published by the al-Zaytouna Center for Studies, citing the Israeli "Central Issues" website: http://www.alzaytouna.net/arabic/?c=201&a=139345.
  • [18] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4051524,00.html.
  • [19] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/israel-long-critical-of-assad-may-prefer-he-stay-after-all/2011/03/29/AFIq5JxB_story.html.
  • [20] Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, republished by Sama News Agency: http://www.samanews.com/index.php?act=Show&id=91476.
  • [21] http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/let-syria-take-care-of-itself-1.352250.
  • [22] See for example Israeli writer and analyst Amit Cohen's article in Ma'ariv, republished by al-Yom al-Sabi' (the Seventh Day): http://www.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=378023&; as well as the comments by Israeli Syrian affairs experts Professors Alexander Bligh and Moshe Ma'oz in: http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/F1506C4E-9CCA-488D-B0F2-1EAC5CD3771C.htm?GoogleStatID=9.
  • [23] Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, republished by Sama News Agency: http://www.samanews.com/index.php?act=Show&id=91476.
  • [24] http://peacenow.org/entries/qa_yossi_alpher_march_28_2011.
  • [25] Yoni Ben-Menachem, Israel Broadcast Authority research center, translated from Hebrew by the Center for the Study and Analysis of Journalism Information:  http://www.alzaytouna.net/arabic/data/attachments; see also Ziv Bar'el: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/assad-s-fall-could-deliver-lebanon-to-iran-and-hezbollah-1.352204.
  • [26] http://www.jpost.com/Defense/Article.aspx?id=214984.
  • [27] Itamar Rabinovich, Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States: http://www.alzaytouna.net/arabic/?c=201&a=139345.
  • [28] http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=45316.
  • [29] See for example, Daniel Phepps in "Israel Today," republished in "Palestine Press": http://www.palpress.co.uk/arabic/?action=detail&id=2509; see also Akiva Eldar: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/arab-peace-initiative-is-another-missed-opportunity-for-israel-1.352252; and Yossi Alpher: http://peacenow.org/entries/qa_yossi_alpher_march_28_2011.
  • [30] Israeli military magazine "Bamahane," reproduced on the Lebanese website "al-Intiqad": http://www.alintiqad.com/essaydetails.php?eid=42043&cid=75.
  • [31] http://www.alzaytouna.net/arabic/?c=201&a=139345.