Washington — In the world of realpolitik, one country’s devastation is, at times, the other’s advantage. And the Syrian civil war, with tens of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, is no different.
For Israel, its neighbor in the South, the disintegration of the Syrian state entails some suprising short-term national security benefits. Analysts looking at the region see some of Israel’s key opponents there losing support, and the focus shifting away from Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and toward the burning issue of Syria.
“Compared to others, it makes Israel look less bad in the region,” said Bob Freedman, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University. He noted that early on in the Syrian civil war, Sunni leaders accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of being “worse than Israel.”
But while experts see in Syria’s chaos some short-term benefits for Israel as a byproduct, all agree that the long run promises more perils than opportunities. The greatest risk of all, they say, will be the need to face a fractured Syrian entity lacking central control and awash with extremists who may have access to advanced weapons systems.
In the meantime, however, recent developments have, among other things, degraded the standing of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based, anti-Israel Shiite militia, which is fighting alongside Assad loyalists in Syria. The group has deployed thousands of fighters from their positions in Southern Lebanon into the Syrian battle theater, serving at times as the front force against the toughest opposition strongholds.
For Israel, this is a welcome distraction of Hezbollah’s attention. The group had been Israel’s greatest threat and has proved its ability to hit all of northern Israel with its rockets and missiles. “There is no doubt that Hezbollah is being degraded,” said Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. The organization, he added, is not only losing men and weapons in the Syrian combat, it is also coming under increasing attacks from political rivals in Lebanon and in the broader Arab world, which views the organization as taking the wrong side in the Syrian conflict. “For the short term,” Feldman said, “this means Israel is safer, because Hezbollah’s focus is in a completely different direction.”
Looking south, Israel has seen another rival take a hit because of the Syrian civil war. Hamas, the Sunni organization close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been in charge of Gaza and was behind numerous rocket attacks on Israel’s Negev region in recent years. Now, because of its backing of opposition groups fighting Assad, Iran, which backs the Syrian president, has cut millions of dollars in funding it used to provide to Hamas. A cash-strapped Hamas would lose some of its capabilities of launching attacks on Israel.