On Syria, 4 new worries for Israel

In the wake of the Russian-American agreement on Syria, Israel must reassess regional power dynamics and threat levels

The recent dramatic turn of events in the Syrian crisis presents Israel with the need to revise its assessment of the Syrian civil war and its ramifications for Israel’s national security.

For the past two and a half years, Israel sought to minimize its involvement in the tragedy unfolding to its north. Israeli decision makers, policy analysts and pundits are split into those who think that the Jewish state would be better off with Assad’s regime (“the devil we know’) rather than dealing with the repercussions of a potential Islamist takeover, and those who argue that a victory of the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis would pose a graver threat to Israel. But this has been an essentially academic debate as Netanyahu’s government was on the whole successful in staying on the sidelines.

The government did draw its own red lines by warning that it would act to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and the fall of weapons of mass destruction into terrorist hands. On three occasions it did act in this vein. Two of these interventions were successful pin pricks and one drew much attention as well as threats by the Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah to retaliate.

This state of affairs has been transformed by the chemical weapons crisis, the American threat to stage a punitive raid against Assad’s regime and the rather surprising Russian American agreement to eliminate Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons leading to the practical removal of the US threat to act militarily against Assad’s regime. The repercussions for Israel’s national security are far reaching. If implemented, the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons would be welcomed by Israel. Whether in the hands of Assad’s army or in those of some terrorist group, they represent a serious threat to Israel and their removal would be a net gain. But other aspects of the recent turn of events are far less attractive from an Israeli perspective:

1. The weakening of Washington’s standing and position in the Middle East
Israelis were not eager to see an American attack on Syria, but, like other friends and allies of the United States, were alarmed by the twists and turns of US policy, the demonstration of reluctance to act decisively and the facilitation of Russia’s return to a prime position in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

2. Russia and Putin’s success
Israel has a reasonably good relationship with Russia but is fully aware that on crucial issues concerning its national security (Iran’s nuclear program, supplying advanced weapon systems to Iran and Syria) Moscow acts against its interests. Vladimir Putin wasted no time before stating in a policy conference held last week in Russia that Syria had built its chemical arsenal in response to Israel’s nuclear program and proceeded to suggest that Israel will eventually have to give that program up. In the Syrian context, Russia, buoyed by its success, is pushing for a political diplomatic solution. In theory this would be the best way out of the crisis, but in the version advocated by Moscow and Damascus, a political solution is designed to keep Assad in power.

3. An emboldened Iran
As seen from Teheran, the furor over Syria’s use of chemical weapons was a dress rehearsal for a showdown with Teheran. And it did happen in the midst of President Rouhani’s charm offensive. Unfortunately, Teheran may well conclude that a US president and political system that shied away from acting against a weak Syria would certainly seek to avoid military action against Iran’s nuclear installations. Without the teeth of a credible military threat, US diplomacy’s prospects for success in the Iranian context have been gravely diminished.

4. The strengthening of Assad’s hand
In Syria itself, the civil war may well continue for quite some time. Assad feels reinforced. He was saved from the cliff and will use the process of dismantling his chemical arsenal in order to buy time. The opposition is weakened and demoralized and may well be radicalized.

Israel watches these developments closely and with a great deal of concern. It will maintain its intimate dialogue with Washington but should at the same time work to cultivate a discreet dialogue with conservative and moderate regimes in the region who share most if not all Israel’s concerns in the face of these international and regional developments.

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution
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