Israeli Position on Syrian Conflict

Concerns Over Border Chaos and Al Qaeda

A sign points the way and distance to the Syrian capital of Damascus in front of cutouts of fighting soldiers in an old Israeli army outpost
David Silverman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Israeli position on the Syrian conflict is torn between an opportunity to weaken terminally the Syrian regime, and anxiety over the chaos on its northern border and the threat from hardline Islamist groups fighting Syrian government forces.

Israel-Syria Rivalry: The Devil You Know

Hostility between Syria and Israel goes back to the countries’ creation in the late 1940, driven by Syria’s support for the Palestinian resistance against the new Jewish state.

Syria and Israel went to war in 1948, 1967 and 1973, which ended with Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights region. Retrieving the lost territory was the central tenet of Syrian foreign policy under Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000), who became Israel’s most implacable Arab foe.

However, after failing to win back the Golan Heights in the 1973 war, the ruthless but pragmatic and patient Hafez al-Assad decided to avoid direct confrontation. Instead, he built his deterrent capacity by striking an alliance with the new Islamic regime in Iran in the early 1980s. After cementing Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon after the end of the civil war in that country in 1990, Assad maintained pressure on Israel by supporting militant groups on the border, chiefly Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

This was the strategic set-up inherited by Assad’s son Bashar in 2000, who for the most part followed his father’s script.

For Israel, Bashar al-Assad was an enemy, but an enemy it knew how to deal with. The border in the Golan Heights had been kept safe for decades.

Fear of State Collapse Next Door

The uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011 presented Israel with a great strategic dilemma. On the one hand, the fall of Assad’s regime would be a tremendous boost to Israel’s position, removing Syria as a conduit for weapons flowing from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

With Assad out of the picture, Israel could devote full attention to consolidating further its hold over occupied Palestinian territories.

But things might not work out as smooth as that. Syria’s post-Assad future is widely uncertain, given the disarray and deep divisions in the Syrian opposition. Most alarming for Israel is the prominent role of hardline Islamist militias among Syria’s armed opposition. Some of these groups, such as Al Nusra Front, have links to Al Qaeda. A chaotic collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of government troops could provide extremists with a safe haven to launch operations into neighboring countries, along with access to Syria’s military arsenal which is believed to include chemical weapons.

Top Israeli army and intelligence officers are taking this scenario very seriously, say media reports. Some experts believe the presence of Islamist militants on Israel’s northern border could pose a security threat more imminent than that of Iran’s nuclear program.

Will Israel Intervene in Syria?

Think of having Al Qaeda on your border, and Assad’s stable and largely pragmatic dictatorship might feel like an infinitely less harmful option. But Israel’s options in Syria are limited.

Assad’s regime appears doomed, and Israel has no influence or contacts in the opposition. A full-scale invasion would be nothing short of mad, due to a hostile terrain and a plethora of armed groups.

Israeli response will likely consist of targeted air strikes or special operations to prevent Syria’s stockpile of advanced weapons from falling into the hands of militant groups, either the Iran-allied Hezbollah or Al Qaeda-linked militias among Syrian rebels. An air strike on a Syrian army convoy in early 2013 was believed to have been the first such intervention by the Israeli Air Force.

Also plausible would be limited cross-border incursions to secure a buffer zone that would prevent the shelling of Israeli territory from Syria. By early 2013, clashes between rebels and government troops spread right to the Israeli border, with artillery shells frequently falling on the Israeli territory.

But even with these measures in place, Israel can’t shape the events in the neighboring country. In the worst case scenario, the Israeli army could be facing a permanent low-intensity war with various militant groups in the Golan Heights, similar to the situation in the Gaza Strip.

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Manfreda, Primoz. "Israeli Position on Syrian Conflict." ThoughtCo, Jun. 20, 2014, Manfreda, Primoz. (2014, June 20). Israeli Position on Syrian Conflict. Retrieved from Manfreda, Primoz. "Israeli Position on Syrian Conflict." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 23, 2017).