Israel stirs the pot in Syria

For much of the past two years Israel stood sphinx-like on the sidelines of Syria’s civil war. Did it want Bashar al-Assad’s regime toppled? Did it favour military intervention to help opposition forces? And what did it think of the increasing visibility of Islamist groups in Syria? It was difficult to guess.

In recent weeks, however, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs. It launched two air strikes on Syrian positions last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons, in what looked suspiciously like an attempt to corner Washington into direct intervention.

Last week, based on renewed accusations of the use of the nerve agent sarin by Syria, the US said it would start giving military aid directly to the opposition.

With suspicions of Israeli meddling growing, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finally forced last week to deny as ”nonsense” evidence that Israeli forces are operating secretly over the border.

Nonetheless, the aura of inscrutability has hardly lifted, stoked by a series of leaks from Israeli officials. Their statements have tacked wildly between threats to oust Assad one moment and denials that Israel has any interest in his departure the next.

Is Israel sending out contradictory signals to sow confusion, or is it simply confused itself?

The answer can be deduced in the unappealing outcomes before Israel whoever emerges triumphant. Israel stands to lose strategically if either Assad or the opposition wins decisively.

Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, ensured that for decades the so-called separation of forces line between Syria and Israel, after the latter occupied the Golan Heights in 1967, remained the quietest of all Israel’s borders.

A taste of what might happen should the Syrian regime fall was provided in 2011 when more than 1,000 Palestinians massed in the no man’s land next to the Golan, while Assad’s attention was directed to repressing popular demonstrations elsewhere. At least 100 Palestinians crossed into the Heights, with one even reaching Tel Aviv.

Last week, following intensified fighting between the rebels and the Syrian army over Quneitra, a town next to the only crossing between Israel and Syria, UN peacekeepers from Austria started pulling out because of the dangers.

Briefly the opposition forces captured Quneitra, offering a reminder that any void there would likely suck in Palestinian militants and jihadists keen to settle scores with Israel. That point was underlined by one Israeli official, who told the Times of London: ”Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there.”

For that reason, the Israeli military is reported to considering two responses familiar from Lebanon: invading to establish a security zone on the other side of the demarcation line, or covertly training and arming Syrian proxies inside the same area.

Neither approach turned out well for Israel in Lebanon, but there are indications – despite Netanyahu’s denial – that Israel is already pursuing the second track.

According to the New York Times, Israel is working with Syrian villagers not allied to Assad or the opposition and offering “humanitarian aid” and “maintaining intense intelligence activity”. In an interview with the Argentinian media last month, Assad accused Israel of having gone further, “directly supporting” opposition groups inside Syria with “logistical support”, intelligence on potential targets and plans for attacking them.

If the future looks bleak for Israel with Assad gone, it looks no brighter if he entrenches his rule.

A strong Assad means Syria will continue to play a pivotal role in maintaining a military front opposed to Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. That in turn means a strong Iran and a strong Hizbullah, the Shia militia in Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s formidable record in guerrilla warfare is the main reason Israel no longer occupies south Lebanon. Similarly, Hizbullah’s arsenal of rockets is a genuine restraint on greater Israeli aggression towards not only Lebanon but Syria and Iran too.

Israel’s air strikes in early May appear to have targeted shipments through Syria of more sophisticated weaponry for Hizbullah, probably supplied by Iran. Longer range missiles and anti-aircraft systems are seen as “game-changing” by Israel precisely because they would further limit its room for offensive manoeuvres.

Israel will be equally stymied if Assad stays in power and upgrades his anti-aircraft defences with the S-300 system promised by Russia.

Either way, Israel’s much vaunted ambition to engineer an attack on Iran to prevent what it claims is Tehran’s goal of developing a nuclear bomb – joining Israel in the club of Middle Eastern nuclear-armed states – would probably come at too high a price to be feasible.

So what does Israel consider in its interests if neither Assad’s survival nor his removal is appealing?

According to some well-placed Israeli commentators, the best Israel can hope for is that Assad holds on but only just. That would keep the regime in place, or boxed into its heartland, but sapped of the energy to concern itself with anything other than immediate matters of survival. It would be unable to offer help to Hizbullah, isolating the militia in Lebanon and cutting off its supply line to Iran.

In closed-door discussions, analyst Ben Caspit has noted, the Israeli army has put forward as its “optimal scenario” Syria breaking up into three separate states, with Assad confined to an Alawite canton in Damascus and along the coast.

A long war of attrition between Assad and the opposition has additional benefits for Israel following the decision by Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to draft thousands of fighters to assist the Syrian army. Protacted losses could deplete Hizbullah’s ranks and morale, while fighting is likely to spill over from Syria into Lebanon, tying up the militia on multiple fronts.

But there is a risk here too. If Hizbullah performs well, as it did in defeating the rebels this month at the town of Qusayr, its position in Lebanon could be strengthened rather than weakened. And in that situation Assad’s debt to Hizbullah would only deepen.

Such calculations are doubtless exercising Israeli military minds.

The greatest danger of all is that yet more parties get drawn in, turning the conflict into a regional one. That would be the likely outcome if Israel chooses to increase its interference, or if the US comes good with its recent threats to increase military aid to the opposition or impose a no-fly zone over parts or all of Syria.

Either way, Israel might see the transformation of Syria in to a new mini-cold war theatre as advantageous.

However, the Israeli sphinx isn’t offering any answers quite yet.

A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, Israeli Government, Middle East, syria

{ 15 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Citizen says:

    Israel will decide whatever; it’s hole-card is always Uncle Sam’s deep pocket, and his veto in the UN SC. It has already attacked Syria twice recently–and who objected? Nobody of any influence or power. Israel has 100 US senators in its back pocket. And Dick and Jane Taxpayer, go “Huh?”

  2. OlegR says:

    So the headline is That Israel stirs the pot.
    And the content is that it haven’t really decided what to do is at all about Syria
    (which is correct)
    Contradictions…

    • shachalnur says:

      @OlegR,

      Good point.
      What is clear that the NATO/Al-Qaida rebels are in deep trouble,Qusair fell,Allepo is on the menu,and Obama is gonna send more night vision goggles……maybe.

      Who and what is paralyzing Obama? Snowden?

      If you read Iranian and Syrian government press,they claim that Israel brought some heavily wounded rebels to hospitals in Israel….twice.

      The accusations of Israel “stirring the pot”,military stikes and arming rebels come from western media and people like Mr.Cook.

      If israel wants to “stir the pot”,she would help destabilize Lebanon,which is relatively calm under the circumstances.(2 fronts for Hezbollah)

      Erdogan and Rebel leaders have accused Israel and Syria of collaborating.

      That’s logical,since US/Europe want Israel to face Iran ,Hezbollah and Al-Qaida controlled Syria alone.

    • Citizen says:

      No, Israel has already attacked Syria twice directly. It’s already decided. What’s undecided is only Israel guessing what it can get away with further without catching verbal flack from the USA. It already knows aid from US will just expand, no matter what it does. But there’s always that pesky PR image problem in the post 1945 world.

      • OlegR says:

        I doubt that putting a missile through Assad’s window would pose a serious PR problem to Israel , might even get a few cheers.
        That’s not the question though.The question is would it serve Israel
        to topple the Assad regime and the answer to this is we won’d know.
        Probably the best thing for us at this juncture is to stay out of it as much as we can, occasionally swatting this or that shipment of arms going where it shouldn’t.

      • shachalnur says:

        @citizen,

        Attacked what?

        Maybe right now it’s convenient for Israel(and Syria) to be seen as attacking Syria.

        Read Syrian,Hezbollah(Al-Manar) and Iran press.

        Only lipservice to Israeli involvement in Syria,nothing substancial.

        you read too much MSM.

  3. W.Jones says:

    The Israelis helped Hamas, which eventually took over in Gaza, because they saw it as weakening the PLO.

    Do the Israelis prefer Hamas having control over Gaza? It does mean that there is less pressure to negotiate with or respect Gaza. But on the other hand, there is more resistance too. So it is hard to say.

    Likewise, with the Iranian election, I can see how they may or may not prefer the outcome.

  4. tree says:

    Off-topic, sorry, but Jonathan Cook has a great article entitled “Return to Iqrit” up at his site. Is there any way, Phil, Adam, Annie, or whomever, to get it reposted here? It seems quite inspiring. A snippet:

    Iqrit, Israel – A dream long nurtured by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians made refugees during the establishment of the state of Israel has become a concrete reality at a small makeshift camp atop a windswept hill.

    A dozen young men have set up the camp at a site in the Upper Galilee from which their grandparents were expelled more than six decades ago.

    Today, all that remains of the village of Iqrit, close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, is a Catholic church on the hill’s brow. But in 1948, the village was home to 600 Christian Palestinians.

    Walaa Sbeit, one of the camp’s leaders, said the group had been inspired by a vision of rebuilding their village.

    “We never lost the connection to this place,” he said. “Every summer we hold a summer school here for the children to learn about the village and their past. And once a month the villagers hold a service at the church. For us, this was always our real home.”

    link to jonathan-cook.net

  5. i can’t believe nobody has made reference to this. this syrian debacle is nothing more than israel’s PNAC plan,(israel’s project for america like a puppet on a string)initially enacted by O.P. cheney(operational president) and his and the neocons useful idiot bush to destabalize and fragment the arab middle east.
    stage one was iraq. stage two is syria. it’s all right on schedule as planned.

  6. by the way, another interesting tidbit i’ve never seen mentioned here is the former centcom general, maybe jay garner but something tells me not, who said of feith, “he’s the stupidest man on the face of the earth”
    he was referring to feith’s appaling screwup of post-invasion iraq with the sectarian violence, the breakup of the army, and the unguarded huge caches of weapons.
    what the general doesn’t understand is that feith wanted all this to happen. he actally is very cunningly smart, it is garner who is stupid! imagine this other useful idiot was in charge of the whole american military there.
    the neocons knew all this was gonna take place. they want chaos, it’s all in the PNAC gameplan for their american lapdog!
    as ledeen once proudly boasted”our middle name is creative destruction!”

  7. Citizen says:

    Obama and Putin are sitting side by side on TV now. Obama’s trying to talk tactically about the Syrian civil war. Putin’s just listening, not speaking at all. What level of force triggers the War Powers Act? US poll: 75% oppose Obama sending in bigger/more weapons. 20% are in favor. On Hardball now. Chris Matthews talking sloppily about “the slippery slope.” Re Scott Rigell (R, Va) says we should limit aid to humanitarian aid.

  8. American says:

    ”In closed-door discussions, analyst Ben Caspit has noted, the Israeli army has put forward as its “optimal scenario” Syria breaking up into three separate states, with Assad confined to an Alawite canton in Damascus and along the coast.”"

    That would mean an all out war …and with boots on the ground to implement the separations.
    Obama isn’t going to do that….he will mince around throw some bones to the rebels to satisfy his girlie gang of liberal interventionist and let this FUBAR end however it’s going to end.
    If he wasn’t led around by his weeny political dick and had any humanitarian concerns he would join up with Putin’s suggestion for a forced truce followed up with a team of internationals to over see negotiations and/ or new elections for Syria.

    • Tuyzentfloot says:

      The ‘optimal scenario’ appears to be still the same idea as found in the 1982 Oded Yinon article that you can find here link to cosmos.ucc.ie

      The Western front, which on the surface appears more problematic, is in fact less complicated than the Eastern front, in which most of the events that make the headlines have been taking place recently. Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precendent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.14

    • OlegR says:

      /forced truce / How do you force a truce without actually threatening boots on the ground?

  9. Donald says:

    “A strong Assad means Syria will continue to play a pivotal role in maintaining a military front opposed to Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. That in turn means a strong Iran and a strong Hizbullah, the Shia militia in Lebanon.”

    Which won’t do the Palestinians one bit of good. I couldn’t care less which set of thugs happens to challenge each other’s hegemony.