The Syrian civil war got closer than ever to Israel’s northern border late last week with the border town of Quneitra on the Golan Heights falling briefly into the hands of rebel forces on 6 June. This followed other developments including tension over the Russian supply of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, increasing participation of Hezbollah in the fighting, escalating rhetoric from Assad towards Israel, and threats to the integrity of the UN observer mission which has been overseeing a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974. In this Q and A, BICOM’s Senior Research Fellow, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog assesses the challenges these developments pose for Israeli policy makers.
Listen to the podcast interview in full here. The following is an edited transcript of the podcast.
With increasing instability in the Israeli-Syrian border area, what are Israeli policy makers’ most immediate concerns?
Recent developments have confirmed the existing working assumption in Israel that nearly 40 years of quiet on the Syria border are about to end. If you go to the Israeli side of the border on the Golan Heights you can see the fighting inside Syria with your own eyes. The assumption is that the border will become a ‘wild west’ with government forces and insurgents currently fighting each other but at a certain point leading to a spill over into Israel.
Austria has announced that it will pull its contingent out of the UN separation force on the Golan (UNDOF), what would be the consequences for Israel of a disintegration of the UN force?
The establishment of the UN force in 1974 created a buffer zone between Israel and Syria. If UNDOF goes this buffer will disappear, contributing to a destabilising of the situation. This will enable any group to approach the border and provoke Israel with attacks, and will force Israel to advance forces to the border area, including heavy weapons like tanks. For these reasons Israel has asked the UN to find substitute forces for those that are leaving.
How big a threat to Israel is the S300 anti-aircraft missile system which Russia has said it will supply to the Assad regime?
The system is a real threat. The question is if and when it will arrive in Syria. Assad’s claim that some parts of the system have already arrived have not been substantiated. It may a take a long time for the Russians to provide the whole system, and even when it arrives it will take at least six months to become operational, so it seems we will not see it before 2014. But if it does arrive it will have a range of nearly 200km and could threaten freedom of flight over Israel itself. Whilst the Israeli Air Force will probably know how to cope with this threat, more complicated is the threat to Israeli civil aviation, including over Ben Gurion airport.
Israel has been trying to talk the Russians out of supplying this weapon. The Russians say they will provide the missile because it is a signed deal. In the meantime we still have some time to work out how to cope with this issue.
Would Israel hold back from targeting this system due to Russian involvement?
I would not bet on it. It is clear to the Russians, and this reportedly came up in a recent meeting between Netanyahu and Putin, that if the S300 arrives in Syria, and threatens Israel, then Israel may be forced to take action against it. Israel’s National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror has said that Israel will not allow this system to become operational. If the Russians get their money for the sale, maybe they will not care, but at the same time it’s not good for the Russians if a strategic weapons system they supply is easily destroyed.
Are there any scenarios, with regard to developments on the Golan Heights, that could force Israel to intervene?
Israel has no interest in getting drawn into the quagmire in Syria for a variety of reasons. Israel does not believe it can shape the outcome, or if it can it will be too costly, and Israel has other things on its plate including the bigger challenge of Iran’s nuclear programme. But Israel has acted and will act if it feels its national interests are directly threatened.
One scenario is jihadists establishing themselves in the Golan along the Israeli-Syrian border and trying to provoke Israel, as some have said they will try to do. In such a scenario, or if it is provoked by Syria, Israel will be compelled to respond. The other area where Israel has acted, and will act again, is the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Aside from these scenarios I do not see Israel intervening in the war.
We have seen increasing threats from Assad towards Israel in recent weeks. Will this make Israel think twice about future actions inside Syria to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah?
This certainly complicates things. Initially the Syrian regime did not respond publicly. In certain cases they even ignored Israeli strikes or presented them as rebel operations. But with increasing media reports of Israeli interventions, they probably felt compelled to upscale their rhetoric and threaten revenge.
They threatened Israel with two types of response. First, Nasrallah said that Syria will continue to try and provide Hezbollah with strategic weapons. Second is a threat to open up the Golan Heights to armed operations against Israel. I think there is still some gap between rhetoric and action, but we cannot rule out that in a recurring scenario of Israeli strikes to prevent weapons transfer to Hezbollah, that the other side will ultimately do something in response, which could bring about escalation. I think Israeli policy makers are aware of this scenario and are considering it carefully.
What is the state of the debate in Israel about arming the rebels?
Israel has not taken an official position, not wanting to be seen to be interfering. The caution attributed to PM Netanyahu is about making sure that weapons provided to rebels do not fall into the wrong hands, and this is a concern shared by the US and major EU powers. I still believe that there are sufficient insurgent forces not connected to jihadists or Islamists, and that weapons should be provided to them. Every day that goes by with the West continuing to be passive helps radicalise the conflict. It empowers Islamists at the expense of non-Islamists, and it highlights the asymmetry between the active role being played by Russia, Hezbollah and Iran in support of Assad, and the passive role being played by the West in countering Assad. I am not advocating military intervention by the West but I would still support providing weapons to carefully vetted non-Islamist forces.
Where do Israeli policy makers stand on the question of whether Assad can be part of a diplomatic solution?
People in Israel are very sceptical about the prospects for a diplomatic solution. For one thing the opposition cannot get its act together and agree on a coherent course of action, and decided not to join the Geneva II diplomatic track. Another reason is that with Assad (who anyway does not wish to step down) scoring some tactical gains on the ground in recent weeks, especially in the area of Qusair, why would he be inclined to make any concessions? This factor also deterred some of the insurgency elements from coming to the table.
What is the impact of Hezbollah’s participation in the conflict?
There are two sides to this coin. On one hand you see Shiite forces rushing to Syria to help Assad and save his regime; you see thousands of Hezbollah combatants fighting inside Syria. They are on the outskirts of Damascus and played a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the battle for Qusair. You also have Shiites from Iraq and Iranians helping the Assad regime, and the fact that they are actively supporting Assad may help him not only survive but re-establish his rule in Damascus, and the link to the coastal area and Lebanon.
On the other hand the fact that Hezbollah is so invested in the war in Syria has some advantages for Israel. Hezbollah is almost totally focussed on Syria rather than focussing on Israel, they are losing people there, and their involvement triggers a lot of criticism in the Sunni Arab Street and in Lebanon itself, where they are under a lot of pressure. Sheikh Qardawi, the spiritual leader of the Sunni world, recently attacked Hezbollah in a very vehement way, stating publicly that they are worse than Jews and Christians and altering their name from the ‘Party of God’ (Hezbollah) to the ‘Part of Satan’. My own view is that overall the disadvantages for Hezbollah outweigh the advantages of the current situation.