Israel’s strategists may be forgiven for lamenting the Jewish year past. New dangers arose while old dangers did not recede. Syria is perhaps the most visible symptom of a much broader process, mostly generated by regional and global developments over which Israel has little control. This is because the Syrian crisis is a combination of what the Syrians do to each other and what the international community ignores.
Each of these components gives cause for grave concern.
While the death toll that exceeds 20,000 speaks eloquently of the savagery of the Assad regime, it is a rebuke to the conduct of the international community that has done little to protect the Syrian public.
This leaves those charged with Israel’s security in a tight spot. Israel needs to bear the world’s indifference in mind. Looking at the human catastrophe that is Syria, it seems inarguable that whatever the talk may be of an international “responsibility to protect,” the harsh reality is that the Syrian rebels are largely on their own.
Israel has long known that it needs to prepare to defend itself by itself, but what are the options to deal with new threats from Syria? Unfortunately, there are no good ones. There are very few actions Israel can take to limit the potential damage to it that may be caused by the Syrian revolt against the Assad regime. Violence toward Israel, if it comes, is potentially “collateral damage” in the titanic struggle over the future of that sad country. There is no party to the conflict with any moderate feelings toward Israel and no practical expectation that a new Syrian regime will seek peace.
The main strategic concern is over deterrence. The Assad regime learned the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, when Israeli air superiority allowed it to inflict severe damage. Since then the Assads were grandiloquent opponents of Israel but took great care to refrain from military confrontation. Will a new regime inherit this sense of Israeli deterrence? Is there anything the Israelis can do to assure that deterrence remains active? Probably not.
In regional terms, Israeli strategic analysts have seen growing instability wherever they look. But Syria is a special case. As a country, Syria always struggled to define itself. For the last generation or two it was largely held together by the oppressive police state bureaucracy, but in the broad sweep of its history, that period may prove an exception to the rule. Syria is a hodgepodge of communities, tribes and religions, a Hobbesian place. Syrian ethnic and religious communities have a history of attacking each other whenever there was no strong power keeping the peace.
Syria is an idea, but a painfully imprecise one. At its broadest, it is something like what we mean by the term “Levant,” a vague designation of a region on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. The confused ideas of Syria pull Syrian politics in different directions.
On the one hand, there is a concept of “Greater Syria” that has been a fixture of Syrian Baath Party orthodoxy. Greater Syria would have included Israel, the PA, probably Jordan and certainly Lebanon, with parts of southern Turkey thrown in. On the other hand, a forcibly unified Syrian state has been perceived as a threat to its minorities since about 70% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and they, like their non-Sunni fellow citizens, have little reputation for tolerance.
Ironically, this concern was most memorably expressed by an Alawite leader named Suleiman Assad, father of Hafez and grandfather of Bashar. In June 1936 he begged the French to create an independent Alawite state:
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the [French] mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.
It is this sense of a common danger faced by all minorities that has helped the Assad regime to maintain a coherent coalition for so long. Beyond the tribal and religious fissures, there are sharp divisions along class lines with wealthy and middle class urban Syrians tending to support the regime against rural and impoverished citizens.
Building from the regional to the global, we may begin with the distinguished Indian former minister Jaswant Singh, who served at various times as his country’s minister of finance, minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense. Following Canadian scholar and political figure Michael Ignatieff he suggests:
Western countries’ national interests will no longer determine the moral and political impulses of today’s global community… Syria’s agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West’s dominant global role.
Certainly, Israeli strategists want to hope that Ignatieff and Singh overstated the case. Indeed, the Syrian situation offers very good reasons not to intervene. Romantic reporting of the type we saw in Tahrir Square suggests that this is a democratically inspired revolt. Few experts believe that. Syria’s history of ethnic and religious violence suggests a maelstrom into which no foreign powers wish to insert their forces; the regime’s still-significant military capabilities compound international reluctance.
But, that being said, it cannot be denied that there is deep concern among observers that Singh and Ignatieff may have a point. Russia’s “stand by your man” approach to the Syria crisis and China’s indifference to the slaughter have largely sidelined the UN. Then there is the Non Aligned Movement’s appalling conference in Teheran that endorsed the Iranian nuclear program and listened without walking out as Iranian leaders threatened Israel with destruction. These do not bode well for the “moral impulses” that will shape international conduct if Ignatieff and Singh are correct. In that sense, the Israelis watch the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict with considerable concern.