Is There an Option for a New Israeli Policy Toward Syria?

by February 2022
Demonstrators raise portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Paris, France. Photo credit: Apaydin Alain/ABACA via Reuters Connect.

The civil war raging in Syria since 2011 ended 20 years of Israeli efforts to resolve the conflict between the two countries. Despite the hopes recently raised in some quarters, the prospects of a rift between Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian protectors are slim. It would have been preferable, therefore, to work for Assad’s ouster and Iran’s removal. But Israel would need US support for this effort and Biden’s policy preferences do not lend themselves to such an ambitious undertaking.

From 1991 to 2011, Israel’s relationship with Syria was conducted on a dual track. An effort to resolve the conflict and reach a political settlement was conducted alongside a continuing direct and indirect armed conflict, primarily through Syria’s alliance with Iran and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The diplomatic effort to resolve the Israeli–Syrian conflict was launched at the US-sponsored Madrid Conference in October 1991 and led to several rounds of serious negotiations conducted with Syria’s presidents, Hafez al-Assad and then with his son and heir Bashar. Several Israeli prime ministers engaged in this effort: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert. During these negotiations, Israel offered several times a conditional, hypothetical willingness to withdraw from the Golan in return for a satisfactory package of peace and security. Syria agreed in principle to peace, a certain degree of normalization, and adequate security arrangements with Israel. But these tentative agreements were never translated into an actual deal. In between these rounds of negotiations, and sometimes while negotiations were taking place, Syria continued its military pressure on Israel, primarily by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon in cooperation with, and subsequently in the service of, Iranian policy.

Getting Iran out of Syria, thereby reducing the threat to Israel and weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be a major geopolitical achievement. But this cannot be achieved by Israel alone.

The last attempt to reach a Syrian–Israeli deal was conducted in the years leading to and right up to the eve of the Syrian civil war, which broke out in March 2011. It consisted of a mediation conducted by US diplomats Frederic Hof and Dennis Ross. The motto of this effort was “territory for strategic realignment.” In exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan, Syria was to reciprocate by making peace but primarily by distancing itself from its close relationship with Iran. Both US mediators felt that Netanyahu and Bashar al-Assad were conducting a serious negotiation, but it is quite possible that neither intended to go through with any deal and rather were interested in participating in these diplomatic exercises primarily to stave off US pressure on other issues. In any event, this initiative ended with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, which has transformed Syrian realities and has led Israel to adopt new policies for coping with these new realities.

As I wrote in an article in New/Lines Magazine, published on March 22, 2021, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and then its persistence presented Israel with an initial policy dilemma. Israel could, in theory, decide to support the uprising; Bashar al-Assad was, after all, a dangerous enemy, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, and a leader who has been willing to go to the point of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon—acquiring from North Korea the facility that Israel had destroyed in 2007. Moreover, the severity of the challenge faced by Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 had demonstrated the dangers presented by “the axis of resistance”—Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. But a different line of thinking influenced Israel’s policy in 2011 and in the next few years: Bashar al-Assad was “the devil Israel knew.” The alternative was not a moderate, liberal government; instead, it was an Islamist or jihadist regime on Israel’s northern border. The lessons from the failed intervention in Lebanese politics in 1982 shaped Israel’s cautious attitude.

As I wrote previously in New/Lines Magazine, “The policy adopted by the Netanyahu government kept Israel on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict with three important exceptions: Israel was willing to offer discreet humanitarian help; it would fire back in the event of firing or shelling into its territory; and it would discreetly interdict the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.” Moreover, Israel’s nightmare was—and still is—that weapons of mass destruction might fall into terrorist hands. “This initial Israeli policy underwent several modifications reflecting the major developments in the Syrian crisis. Thus, Israel began to launch unadvertised attacks on Iranian shipments as Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war increased in 2013. Israel also began to offer significant humanitarian help to the population of the Syrian Golan and subsequently, as Iran and Hezbollah tried to embed themselves in that part of Syria, Israel offered support to some local opposition groups by providing them with weapons.”

This fundamental policy had to be adapted to meet three major developments: The rise of ISIS and the establishment of its “caliphate” on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border; Russia and Iran’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime; and their contribution to the regime’s military victory in Aleppo at the end of 2016. As it turned out, the challenge of ISIS was temporary and from Israel’s point of view, peripheral. But the establishment of a long-term Iranian and Russian military presence in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s ability to survive the civil war have presented Israel with new challenges. Russia’s military presence in Syria and its increased influence over the Assad regime and in the country turned out less traumatic for Israel than the initial Israeli concern at having Russia and its air force too close for comfort. Russia has not been interested in a conflict with Israel, and both countries have found ways of avoiding direct conflict. (In one case, Russia initially accused Israel of downing a Russian reconnaissance airplane while Israel claimed that Syrian air defenses shot it down by mistake. The Russians soon realized that this was the case and resumed its liaison with Israel.)

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. Photo credit: REUTERS.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi meets Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. Photo credit: REUTERS.

Iran’s presence and activity in Syria has presented Israel with a much more serious threat. Iran has been supportive of the Assad regime from the early days of the civil war, first indirectly and then by dispatching troops and pro-Iranian militias. Iran has been busy trying to build its own military infrastructure in Syria, deepening its influence in the country and building its overland bridge through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Iran has a huge number of rockets and missiles held by Hezbollah in Lebanon as a deterrent against Israel and has sought to directly control additional offensive capacity in Syria against Israel. Israel is determined to prevent this from happening and since 2018 has been conducting the “campaign between the wars,” aerial defense operations to destroy this Iranian effort.

Beyond these issues is the question of Israel’s view of Syria as a country and as a state. Assad survived the civil war but has not been able to rebuild the Syrian state’s authority over its national territory. Assad controls only 60% of Syria’s territory; the rest is controlled by Turkey, the Syrian Kurds, and Islamist and jihadi militias in the province of Idlib. Russian and Iranian military are present in Syria as well as Shiite militias cultivated by Iran.

Assad’s prospects of returning Syria to a normal state of affairs are dim. He is unlikely to receive the huge amount of funds required for economic rehabilitation from Western or international institutions as long as such projects do guarantee the return of a large portion of the five million Syrian refugees who live in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Turkey has practically annexed a large strip along its border with Syria; the US is likely to maintain its small expeditionary force in Syria and to support its Kurdish allies; Turkey prevents Assad and Russia from conquering the province of Idlib; and Russia and Iran are likely to maintain their military presence and influence in the country.

Although a swift and radical transformation of this situation is unlikely, Bashar al-Assad has been steadfast and persistent in his effort to survive and gradually normalize the situation in this country and expand his regime control, first in the part of the country under his authority and then over additional areas. He has seen some successes, most importantly the willingness of some of the Arab world to accept Syria again as a legitimate member of the Arab League. Relations with several Arab countries have been restored, and some money has been transferred to Syria from the Gulf states. This development has led to a policy debate in Israel predicated on the question of whether Israel should continue to focus on the Iranian challenge in Syria and view Assad as an illegitimate enemy, or whether Israel should seek to improve its position through a change of policy. For example, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s former national security advisor, who—based on his dealings with Russian officials during his tenure—stated in an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that “there is a shared view between us and the Russians, beyond what is publicly exposed … the Russians are striving for regional stability, particularly in Syria. I believe they would agree that Iran is the force challenging that stability.”

More broadly, the Israeli respectable commentator on national security affairs, Alon Ben David, argued in the Israeli daily Maariv that given indications of Assad’s unhappiness with Iran’s massive influence in his country and the Arab world’s growing willingness to accept Assad, Israel should reconsider its own policy toward Syria’s president and his regime. Israel, according to Ben David, through mediation by either its interlocutors in Russia or its new friends in the Gulf, should negotiate with Assad, offering to support economic aid in return for limiting Assad’s relations with Iran and Iran’s position in Syria. “There is no debating the fact that at issue is one of the greatest villains of the 21st century,” writes Ben David, “and yet Assad’s desire to return to the family of nations and to be considered a legitimate leader can today be converted into a strategic tie-breaker. It is not certain at this moment that legitimacy can be built for him in the West, but if we help him return to the Arab nation, large parts of which are now our allies—we will dismantle the Shiite axis, give our Lebanese neighbors a persuasive presentation of the advantages of ousting the Iranians, and maybe even lay the foundations for a future resolution of the conflict with Syria.”

Ben David may well have written his column on his own or he may have been influenced by conversations with Israeli officials and policy makers, but the alternative he proposes to Israel’s current policy is not quite realistic. To begin with, Russia, who could be a key to limiting and maybe even ousting Iran from Syria, is not a real partner for such an effort unless it becomes part of a comprehensive Russian–American deal. Such a deal is not in the offing and Russia, despite an element of competition with Iran in Syria, still regards Iran as a partner. More importantly, all indications of Assad’s unhappiness with Iran are questionable, and even if he concluded that it would be better for him to rid Syria of Iran’s presence and influence, he does not quite have the means required for implementing it. Furthermore, there is little prospect of an Israeli–Syrian peace deal. Earlier attempts by Israeli leaders to come to terms with Syria had met with stiff opposition in the country. Given the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and the understandable opposition to a deal with a character like Bashar al-Assad, it is hardly likely that an Israeli government would be willing or able in the foreseeable future to negotiate any “land for peace” deal with the Syrian regime as it is.

Clearly, an alternative to the current policy—that passively accepts the overall status quo in Syria and focuses on Iran’s military presence—would be desirable. Getting Iran out of Syria, thereby reducing the threat to Israel and weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be a major geopolitical achievement. But this cannot be achieved by Israel alone. It can only be achieved through a combined effort with the United States. In 2012, the Obama administration missed an opportunity to try to topple the Assad regime by offering substantial aid to the Free Syrian Army. By toppling the Assad regime, the US could conceivably undermine Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon and threaten Iran’s whole posture in the Middle East. Given the difficulty of negotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration could conceivably switch to an effort to curtail Iran’s regional ambitions. A different policy toward Assad’s regime in Syria would be a cardinal element in such a policy. But given the contours of the Biden administration’s policy in the Middle East and its reluctance to undertake massive new initiatives in the region, it is unlikely that Israel will have such a partner for a different Syria policy in the foreseeable future.

Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, vice chair of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and a distinguished fellow at Brookings. He served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington and Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria. His most recent book is Syrian Requiem (with Carmit Valensi).
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