TEL AVIV — When it comes to Syria, the conventional wisdom is that Israel’s best case scenario is maintenance of the status quo: prolonged conflict without a clear winner.
Moreover, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream Israel lobby, are fully on board with President Obama’s push for a limited strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons, though not necessarily Assad’s overthrow, which might bring to power radical Islamist rebels.
But surprisingly, a sampling of Israel’s leading intelligence and military strategists reflects no such consensus. When asked by the Forward about both the immediate and long-term scenarios for Syria, prominent Israeli national security experts offered a sprawling range of opinions, ranging from support for Assad’s survival to unqualified backing for his ouster, even if that means the ascendance of leaders who back Al Qaeda.
The diversity of views punctured the perception that Israel’s defense establishment is united in what it wants to see happen in Syria. These interviews show a group of thinkers whose views — with careful if divergent reasoning in each case — are all over the map, as they seek to assess and make sense of the chaos next door.
After Obama’s decision to delay a strike and instead seek Congress’ approval for one, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admonished his ministers to refrain from public comment, which they did with one exception. This pleasantly surprised Efraim Halevy, who headed Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, from 1998 to 2002.
“For once, wisdom prevailed,” Halevy, who also directed the prime minister’s National Security Council for eight months, told the Forward. Netanyahu considers it important that if America does strike Syria, its action should not be viewed as a result of Israeli pressure. Halevy believes this to be correct strategically, not just good public relations.
“Assad’s survival or not isn’t an issue in which Israel should have a stance,” he said.
He thinks the impression that Jerusalem is nurturing, namely that it has no favorite in the Syrian civil war, is genuine. Israel’s interests, Halevy believes, are limited to three considerations. The first is that whoever is in power in Syria doesn’t engage in any direct military confrontation with Israel. The second is that Iranian power in Syria is constrained, as “any enhancement of Iran in Syria is contrary to Israel’s interest.” The third is that Syria doesn’t serve as a conduit for the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.
No scenario ensures outcomes that meet Israel’s needs, and “every scenario has so many negative aspects.” As for the ramifications of a strike by the United States on Syria, “I don’t think Israel’s interests would be impacted in any direction whatsoever as a result,” except perhaps to “strengthen deterrence” against Syria.
Contrary to Halevy’s downbeat view, Zaki Shalom sees hope in Assad. The Syrian leader, he believes, could be redeemed in the eyes of the West and become a benign neighbor for Israel.
Shalom has published on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East. A senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and a professor at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheba, Shalom thinks that if in the long term the state is subdivided, the Syrian Arab Republic could even become Israel’s friend.
“The present situation is not bothering us,” he said. Syria is getting weaker, and as an enemy gets weaker it is better for Israel. Syria’s army is engaged in a war and has no energy to get engaged in warfare with Israel.”
But the unseating of Assad “might bring chaos, and we prefer a central regime than chaos.” Shalom is particularly concerned about jihadist elements in the Syrian opposition.
Assad is “the person we know, and we know how to deal with him….Our history with Assad is quiet, and while I wouldn’t say peaceful, [conflict with Assad] is not on the agenda.”
Citing the tacit agreement for quiet along the Israel-Syria cease-fire line, Shalom said, “We don’t like him — he’s a dictator, he’s brutal, but you can make a ‘deal’ with him.”
In his analysis, “the problem is Iran not Syria.” And as such, if Iran’s influence is neutralized, then Syria stops being a headache for Israel.
Shalom believes that as far as Assad is concerned, “if there is a strike on Iran and the Iranian regime becomes unstable, he will make his calculations and say ‘better an alliance with the West.’” After all, “he’s a pragmatic leader — he’s not crazy.”
The long-term solution in Syria “will have to bring about [its] division into two or three states.” Eventually, he expects an Alawite-Shi’ite state, led by Assad, along with a Sunni state and a Kurdish state. He foresees the break-up as coming with Assad’s assent — albeit possibly as a result of very heavy pressure from the West.
“I think those states will need flourishing economies, and I’m not ruling out scenarios where they would seek some type of relationship with Israel — if not three of them, one or two.”
To Mordechai Kedar, who directed a Syria desk at the Israel Defense Forces for much of his 25-year career in military intelligence, Shalom’s logic is deeply flawed. The fact that Israel is familiar with Assad “should actually work against him,” while the Syrian opposition, despite being an unknown quantity, is less troubling.
The jihadists in its ranks “are a tactical and maybe an operational threat to Israel but not a threat to the state.” Kedar elaborated that they “are terrorists, yet they are not posing any existential threat to Israel.”
As far as he is concerned, the big difference is that whatever the dangers of jihadists, they are not representatives of the Iranian regime. Kedar does not believe that Syria’s alliance with the power elites in Tehran will be broken while Assad remains in office. “His breath comes from their lung: money-wise and weapons-wise he is deep in their pockets.
“The end of the Assad regime is better for Israel than him staying in power, because [with Assad], Iran is on our border.”
What if the regime in Tehran collapsed? Even then, he considers opposition jihadists preferable to Assad, as any power they might attain would be relatively weak and disputed by various rival factions.
The possibility that interests Kedar more is that further weakening of the Syrian regime, or the regime’s final demise, could have a domino effect in Tehran. This is because there is division within Iran’s ruling class regarding how far it should commit itself to Assad.
“If disputes start to emerge inside [Iran’s] ruling elite, it is good for Israel and good for the rest of the world.”
“Unfortunately, in Syria you don’t have a less-bad scenario,” claimed Dan Schueftan, who was an adviser to Ariel Sharon and is widely credited with introducing the idea of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians, which inspired the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the West Bank security barrier. “All scenarios are very bad.”
Schueftan is highly skeptical about any prediction of calm across Israel’s northern borders — and has been for more than 30 years. Back in 1982 the army recruited him to write a “strategic logic” for that year’s Lebanon War, which was being discussed in military circles as a chance to bring about a “new order” in Lebanon.
“I said that the words ‘order’ and ‘Lebanon’ in the same sentence is poor syntax,” he recalled. His report was distributed to the Cabinet and to senior officers, but ignored.
Today, he said, the military establishment is on the same page as he is, concluding that there are no satisfactory outcomes. There is “very little disagreement — we are all totally committed to ambiguity.”
Schueftan sees the two likely scenarios as Syria emerging from the civil war as a “failed state” with no central authority, or with Assad remaining president, with Russia and other allies acting as his “ultimate guarantor” in the international arena. “The fantasy that the rebels will win and that there will be an open-minded democratic state in Syria is not serious,” he said, describing both scenarios as “very, very bad” from an Israeli perspective.
As for the desirability of a U.S. strike, he believes that Israelis “have lost their simple-minded approach that doing something or not doing something can change the Middle East for the better.”
Schueftan said that Israel’s best hopes for a U.S. strike are that “chemical weapons will not be regarded as just another piece in your arsenal: [Syria] will realize that their use has ramifications” and that Iran will receive a warning “signal” that its actions will have consequences.
Despite his pessimism, Schueftan does not think that Israel faces greater threats in Syria than it has faced before. “I don’t think the challenges we see are more difficult than 50 years ago,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com