ABC online: The Drum – 10 April 2012
The question has arisen over Israel’s position on the appalling situation in Syria, where the lives of over 9,000 civilians have been claimed in a crackdown on protesters and an insurrection by opposition groups.
Some commentators have unfairly interpreted the Israeli government’s comparative silence over the bloodshed compared to other regional and Western countries as cold indifference, others as calculated.
Bizarrely and contradictorily, Israel has been criticised by some commentators for wanting to keep the current government in place and by others for seeking to topple it.
The evidence paints a less conspiratorial picture. At the onset of the unrest last year, some among Israel’s own security analysts argued that the best outcome in Syria from Israel’s security perspective would be a return to stability under the continued rule of the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.
Within a couple of months and as violence worsened, however Israel’s analysts, as well as its leaders, overwhelmingly embraced the virtues of a democratised post-Assad Syria divorced from the Iranian axis.
At the same time, Israeli officials have recognised the possibility of a third outcome, whereby Syria degenerates into a failed state, with Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces on one side and Al-Qaeda-inspired Sunnis on the other – a situation that would present Israel with a new set of uncertainties.
These analyses, however, were academic insomuch as Israel understood that its best course of action – for all concerned – was to avoid intervening in Syria’s internal affairs, even verbally.
Israel could not afford to be seen as supporting either the Syrian government or opposition groups, which is just as well: neither side would welcome such support.
Indeed, the worst accusation the Assad regime and its opponents have hurled at each other is that their opponents are carrying out the bidding of their sworn enemy, Israel.
This is unfortunate, because in truth, while Israel may today continue to technically be in a state of war with Syria, it has always looked forward to the day when a peace agreement could be reached with its neighbours in Damascus, and has, over the years, made repeated, discrete overtures to that effect.
In making these gestures, Israel was willing to overlook the fact that Syria’s tribal-totalitarian government hardly made for an appealing peace partner.
Israel’s justifiable wariness of the Alawite-controlled Ba’athist regime dates back decades.
In June 1967, Israel answered Syria’s entry into the three-front war by capturing the strategically vital Golan Heights. Syria’s defence minister was Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and president from 1970 (when he wrested control from Salah Jadid in a coup) until his death in 2000.
While the last direct war between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights was in 1973, Syrian forces and their proxy allies have factored into practically every mini-war or escalation since. As a junior partner in the Iranian axis, Syria has been a conduit for arms to Hezbollah, which is estimated to have 100,000 rockets aimed from southern Lebanon toward Israel, capable of hitting virtually anywhere in the country.
Until recently, Damascus was home to Hamas, another Iranian-backed terror group which continues to attack Israel on a regular basis from its staging areas in the Gaza Strip, which they initially electorally won and then seized from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
While dealing with Syria, Israel could not forget the brutality the Assad regime was capable of inflicting against its own people. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad ordered the Syrian army to put down an Islamist uprising in Hama. Tens of thousands of Syrians were killed in the resulting onslaught, which remains the bloodiest stain on the regime’s hands until today – although regretfully the current bloodshed, if unchecked, may yet overtake that despicable “milestone”.
Throughout the current violence, Israel has maintained its vigilance over the fate of the weapons of mass destruction in Syria’s arsenal. Syria’s massive stores of some of the world’s most deadly chemical weapons are a grave worry, not only to Israel, but to the free world should those potent agents find their way into the hands of terrorist groups in the aftermath of the Assad government’s prospective eventual downfall.
So high is the level of risk associated with the Syria’s chemical weapons that analysts agree that this is the one issue which might prompt Israel to come off the sidelines and act to prevent their disbursal among terror groups.
Thankfully, at least those weapons do not include nuclear capabilities, thanks in no small part to Israel’s successful 2007 strike on a secret Syrian nuclear reactor site under construction with the help of North Korea.
In spite of the Assad regime’s role in state-sponsored terrorism, and in spite of its close relationship with the mullahs of Iran who have threatened Israel’s destruction, for the sake of the Israeli and Syrian people, Israel has time and again left the door open with Damascus for a peaceful resolution of their differences.
Notably, in the mid-1990s, Syria and Israel engaged in several rounds of direct peace talks. These talks were briefly revived in 1999. In recent years, again, the possibilities of a renewal of peace talks were explored in earnest.
The talks, while not successful, were substantive. In keeping with the land for peace formula embodied in UNSC Resolution 242, Israeli leaders have openly weighed a pullback from virtually all of the Golan Heights as part of such an agreement, even at great political cost among a security-conscious public.
Many analysts believe Assad’s reluctance to accept a peace deal with Israel may have been rooted in a belief that such a deal might threaten the Ba’athist regime’s legitimacy, which derived in part from being the most “principled” and extreme proponent of Arab nationalism.
As such, there is hope in Israel that a post-Assad Syria, separated from the Iranian axis and led under a new mandate from the Syrian people, might reopen the prospects for peace that seemed dead in the water in recent years.
Privately, Israelis are not afraid to express their support for the welfare of the Syrian people. In March, hundreds of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv against the bloodshed in Syria. Weeks earlier, a smaller number of Arab and Druze supporters of the Assad government gathered in the Galilee to express their feelings on the matter. While uniformity of opinion about ending the fighting is elusive among Israelis as elsewhere, there is clearly no Israeli joy over the bloodletting across its north-eastern border.
Last month, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman transmitted Israel’s desire to contribute humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees through UN agencies.
While Israel’s relative silence over the situation in Syria is unavoidable, quietly all Israelis wish for an outcome in Syria that ends the bloodshed and hopefully brings with it a sea change at the highest levels of Syrian decision-making, creating a new opening towards a peace that mutually benefits both peoples.
Ahron Shapiro is a policy analyst for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and the former international news editor for the Australian Jewish News.