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.
Threats to Israel have also decreased from nearby hostile states. Syria itself, which has been Israel’s only neighboring country considered to pose a conventional military threat, has seen its military capabilities erode after more than two years of fighting rebels. Experts say that despite recent reports of Russian weapons deals and of arms shipments coming in from Iran, Syria’s army is a shadow of its former self. The fact that Assad had to call in Hezbollah for help demonstrates how weak his army has become, analysts note.
On the diplomatic front, Israel has seen some gains, as well. Relations with Turkey, which went sour following the Gaza flotilla incident three years ago, have been on the mend, thanks to recognition by both sides that the Syrian crisis requires a renewal of their alliance. Israel has also intensified its cooperation with Jordan, the country seen as having the most to lose from Syria’s disintegration.
But perhaps most significant for the Israeli government is a shift in international attention, from the Palestinian conflict to the Syrian front. “It’s changing the most salient axis of division for a lot of people,” said Robert Blecher, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. Blecher noted that more attention is now paid to other Middle East fault lines, such as sectarian divides, than to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Generally speaking, this will play well for a government that doesn’t want anything to happen,” he added, referencing the Netanyahu government.
The Obama administration has been trying to prove this widespread assumption wrong. For the past few months, Secretary of State John Kerry has been directing a concerted effort to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Speaking to the American Jewish Committee on June 3, Kerry made clear that America does not believe that the turbulence in the region should lead to abandoning the peace process. “Some say that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it’s too messy, it’s too uncertain. But in reality, the dawn of a new era in the region is exactly the kind of time to recast Israel’s relationships, to change the narrative with a new generation that is starting to make its voice heard,” Kerry said.
Israel, which has for years battled to fend off international pressure demanding faster movement in the peace process, has seen the Syrian crisis reinforce its argument that the Palestinian conflict is not the root cause for Middle East instability and that the road to a new Middle East does not go through Jerusalem. “When more people have been killed in the past two years in Syria than in all the years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the argument that everything depends on solving the conflict no longer stands,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a researcher at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center who is currently on sabbatical at George Washington University.
Despite a variety of gains in easing security concerns and improving Israel’s diplomatic standing, the list of threats brought about by Syria’s plunge into a bloody civil war is much longer. It includes primarily the risk that Israel’s Golan Heights border, which has been quiet for the past four decades, will become tense and require greater military attention.
Many also fear the Syrian government’s potential loss of control over its chemical weapons stockpile. Other threats include a possible break-up of the country into sectarian autonomies with no effective central government, which would provide fertile ground for terrorists, and the collapse of the monarchy in Jordan, currently Israel’s most reliable partner in the region, under the pressure of refugees and internal unrest.