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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Interpreting the Israel-Syria ‘war of words’

Key Points

  • The Israeli stance toward Syria is intended to convey both the readiness for peace, and the sense that Syria should not interpret this readiness as an invitation to cross ‘red lines’ with regard to security.
  • Many in Israel’s defence establishment believe that Syria could be coaxed away from Iran by the successful conclusion of a peace deal with Israel. As such, there is strong support within the defence establishment for the renewal of negotiations.
  • Nonetheless, in recent weeks, evidence has emerged of Syria significantly upgrading its provision of weapons to Hezbollah. This has caused serious concern among Israeli officials. This fact underlies the current rise in tensions.
  • Syria has, in the last year, successfully advanced its goal of reducing its diplomatic isolation, without making concessions in terms of its regional alignments and behaviour. There is a concern this may have emboldened the regime in Damascus.

Introduction

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported last week to have instructed ministers to cease commenting on the issue of Israel and Syria after a series of verbal exchanges between Syrian and Israeli officials raised tensions. Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have
since reiterated that Israel seeks peace negotiations with Syria, and not war.

The latest exchange of barbed remarks came after Syrian President Assad told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Mouratinos that Israel was leading the region towards war. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem then
upped the rhetoric, telling reporters that should a new war break out, it would be a ‘total’ war and would reach Israeli cities. Some reports suggested that the Syrian remarks came in response to an earlier comment by Defence Minister Ehud Barak that it was essential to renew talks with Syria in order to avoid renewed conflict. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman then said that should Syria launch war against Israel, the result would be the departure of the Assad regime from power. At this point, Netanyahu stepped in to offer a message reiterating Israel’s readiness for negotiations and peace.

The latest exchange reflects the fact that Damascus is aligned with Iran against Western and Israeli interests in the region. Syria is the headquarters of a number of Palestinian terror groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and is a key arms supplier to Hezbollah. The Syrian alliance with Iran and support for terrorist groups gives Damascus increased diplomatic weight in the region. Syria’s ‘capacity for mischief’, and its willingness to activate or deactivate this in a variety of regional contexts, helps the regime to maintain influence. At the same time, it carries an inbuilt capacity to generate friction.

Yet Israel was until recently involved in a process of indirect negotiations with Syria. There are those within the Israeli defence establishment who believe that Damascus would be willing to decouple itself from the Iranian-led regional alliance in return for Israel conceding the Golan Heights. What then is the reason for the latest rise in tension between Israel and Syria?

Syrian arms flows to Hezbollah

An important element in the recent friction is the ongoing flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Evidence suggests that Syria has, in recent weeks, significantly upgraded the calibre of the weaponry it is providing. According to reports in Janes’ Defence Weekly, Syria has supplied Hezbollah with M-600 surface to surface missiles with a range of 250 kilometres and a 500-kg warhead. These precision guided weapons represent a significant upgrading of Hezbollah’s military capabilities.

Israel is also reportedly concerned by Syria supplying the SA-2 air defence system and the SS-N-26 surface-to-sea missile to Hezbollah. The specific concern regarding anti-aircraft weaponry relates to Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, which are considered essential by Israel to track the ongoing arming of Hezbollah by Syria and Iran. The SA-2 system, currently possessed by Hezbollah, presents a potential threat to helicopters, but not to aircraft. Israeli officials have said that the provision of more advanced anti-aircraft weaponry, namely Russian-made SA-18 and SA-22, to Hezbollah would represent a ‘game change’ in the strategic balance between the sides. Syria has not yet attempted it, but the provision of M-600 missiles itself is causing concern within Israel’s defence establishment.  

In addition to the upgraded weapons supplies, the Qatari newspaper al-Watan recently quoted Syrian officials as saying that a “strategic decision” has been taken “not to allow Israel to defeat resistance forces in the region”. Such statements worry Israeli officials because they raise the possibility that in a future clash with Hezbollah, Syria might be drawn in. Such concerns are compounded by geographical considerations. Since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah is believed to have established its bases
close to the Syrian border in the Beka’a valley area. This could raise the chances of a clash between Israel and Syria in a future confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah.

It is noteworthy that an important aspect of Israel’s success in confronting Hamas in Operation Cast Lead derived from Hamas’s lack of a ‘hinterland’, because of the Egyptian decision to seal the southern exit from Gaza during the operation. In the event of a future conflict in Lebanon, it will be an obvious concern of Israel to similarly deprive Hezbollah of its ability to supply itself, via the eastern border with Syria.

Reviving the Israeli-Syrian peace process

The Syrian regime has scored a number of notable recent foreign policy successes. After a period of isolation in the region, Damascus has over the last year found itself being courted. This has not derived from any shift in Syria’s regional alignments and behaviour. Rather, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia have concluded that Syria needs to be engaged rather than confronted. The results of this re-orientation are numerous. The US is in the process of appointing a new ambassador to Damascus. Saudi Arabia brokered, together with Syria, a coalition agreement in Lebanon which allows Hezbollah to dominate the new Lebanese government. Whilst the US has repeatedly expressed concerns about the use of the Syrian-Iraqi border as an entry point to Iraq for Sunni insurgents, public pressure appears to have lessened in recent months. In addition, the tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is no longer considered a serious threat to the Syrian regime.

The Israeli decision to re-commence Turkish-mediated indirect negotiations with Syria last year has significantly contributed to ending Damascus’s isolation. There is widespread support in the Israeli defence establishment for the view that Syria’s alignment with Iran is largely pragmatic, and that Syria could be tempted away from the Iran-led regional alliance in return for Israel conceding the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967. Certainly Syria, unlike Iran, is not opposed in principle to peace with and recognition of Israel. However, whether this will translate into a Syrian willingness to accept a major realignment of its regional policy is open to question.

While Israel currently favours opening direct negotiations without preconditions, Syria wants to recommence the indirect, Turkish-brokered talks which broke down last year. Currently, the situation is deadlocked and no negotiations are taking place.

Conclusion

Syria has skilfully avoided military confrontation with Israel for most of the period since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. However, there is a fear that Syria’s relative success in reviving its diplomatic position while making no compromises of its own may lead to recklessness and over-confidence, raising the risk of conflict. The likely catalyst of such a scenario would be a renewed clash between Israel and Hezbollah, which could bring Israeli forces close to the Lebanese-Syria border.

The Israeli stance toward Syria is intended to convey both the readiness for peace, and the sense that Syria should not interpret this readiness as an invitation to cross ‘red lines’ in its ongoing support for terror groups engaged in conflict with Israel. Maintaining the correct balance in this stance is, of course, not simple. The recent ‘war of words’ between Jerusalem and Damascus reflects this ongoing balancing act.