Jerusalem — Shedding their caution about being seen as interfering in the Syrian crisis, Israelis both inside and outside the government are now openly advocating armed Western intervention to topple the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Critics of the new posture say it plays into the hands of the Assad regime, which has been eager to paint the fighting as entirely the result of a Western and Zionist conspiracy against Syria for being a steadfast Arab nationalist state. But Israel’s strong interest in dealing a blow to Iran, Syria’s main ally and backer, is drawing an increasing number of security figures to back an activist policy against the regime.
Initially, the shift was a quiet one, discussed mainly within Israel’s tightly knit circle of active and retired security and intelligence strategists. The government’s official stance remained one of reticence and neutrality. That is still basically the stance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declined to answer recently when asked if he favored the West actively arming the rebels.
“I’m not sure that as prime minister of the state of Israel that it would help me to respond to that because I am not sure it would help the very people you want to help,’’ he told the Jerusalem Post on September 16.
But intervention against Assad is now publicly proclaimed as official policy by the Foreign Ministry.
“Yes, just as there was intervention in Libya, there should also be intervention in Syria, if need be by military action,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Forward, recalling the 2011 NATO bombing campaign that paved the way for the fall of Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi. “We don’t specify what form this action should take, but from a moral standpoint, the Syrian civilians need protection.”
The stated Israeli rationale for Western intervention to topple Assad is to put a halt to spiraling fatalities, now estimated at more than 20,000. And Palmor stuck to that as his explanation for Israel’s shift.
“As the carnage became more horrible day by day, there was a need to take a moral stand.” he said.
But within the influential elite of retired senior security officials who have been pushing for this change, Israel’s strategic interest in Assad’s ouster is also acknowledged. In a New York Times opinion piece published February 7, Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad wrote bluntly, “As [Assad’s] government falters, Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles heel. Iran has poured a vast array of resources into the country…. The current standoff presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace to international security and well-being.”
At the time of that Times article, Halevy called only for intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade Russia and China, Syria’s main backers, to cut off their support. He declined to be interviewed by the Forward on his views regarding Western military intervention now, with the failure of diplomacy on this point with Russia and China.
Amos Yadlin, exeutive director of Israel’s leading security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in Tel Aviv, and former head of military intelligence, backed Western military intervention in a September 6 opinion article in the British newspaper The Independent.
In the article, Yadlin sought to pre-empt opponents of military involvement, writing that Syria “need not become ‘another Iraq’” and reassuring readers that the West would not become mired in another Muslim country as it had in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The recommended model, built on the lessons of Iraq, is a Western aerial campaign that paves the way for regime change, as it did in Kosovo and Libya,” he wrote, adding that the West has a “moral obligation” to go ahead despite Moscow’s objections.
“No Russian, Chinese or Arab opposition justifies passivity while the Assad regime continues to slaughter the Syrian people,” Yadlin wrote.
But near the end of his article, he added that taking action could also “weaken if not break the nexus between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations, and therefore likely contain Iranian influence in the Levant.”
Shlomo Brom, senior analyst at INSS and former director of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army’s general staff, is also unabashedly calling for military intervention to break the current stalemate between the regime and the Syrian rebels. “The present situation is the worst of all worlds, because there are all kinds of actors helping the rebels in their battle against the regime, but the assistance is not of the nature that can be decisive and cause the regime to fall,” Brom told the Forward. ”[This] can continue for a very long time, with all the resulting harm to civilians on both sides.”
Brom advocates establishment of no-fly zones that would prevent Syrian planes from bombing areas controlled by the rebels and, if necessary, prevent selective bombing.
Not everyone in the security establishment backs this view. The former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland, believes that the status quo of stalemate between the regime and the rebels is not unfavorable to Israel.
“Looking at it in a political and cynical way, as long as the regime in Damascus is fighting for survival internally and for legitimacy in the international arena, and as long as Syria is weakened economically and militarily, it is not a bad situation for Israel.” he said.
Moreover, what follows the Assad regime could be negative from Israel’s viewpoint, Eiland said. A new regime could be dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood and be extremely militant against Israel, he warned, while groups inspired by Al Qaeda could gain control of border areas. Even if a stable, pro-Western government arises, the first thing it will want is to discuss the return of the Golan Heights. “I’m not sure that is good for Israel,” Eiland said.
Israeli calls for Western military intervention would also strengthen Assad’s bid to delegitimize his opponents, by painting them as tools of the Zionist enemy, Eiland predicted.
In fact, however, the regime is already depicting the insurrection as part of a Western and Zionist conspiracy against Syria. State television and newspapers report finding Israeli-made weapons among those captured from “terrorists,” the government’s designation for rebels.
Nevertheless, David Lesch, a specialist on Syria at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, rejected the notion that Assad’s opponents would suffer at this late stage from Israel’s shift to advocating Western military intervention.
Earlier in the uprising, “it may have had more of an impact in terms of helping the regime and hurting the opposition’s cause,” said Lesch, author of the newly published book “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” “But Israel was prudently cautious in the first months of the uprising.
“Now, with the conflict having become so existential and militarized on both sides, what any Israelis are saying at this point doesn’t really matter that much. If anything, opposition elements may be hopeful that Israeli countenance of military intervention might help push the U.S. into action, something they are desperately clamoring for.”
Contact Ben Lynfield at firstname.lastname@example.org