By Matthieu Rey
Western powers have recently expressed great concern concerning unfolding events in the Syrian crisis and have denounced the ‘escalation’ of violence, by which they mean the fighting predominantly between Israeli and Iranian forces in the Golan Heights and in the southern part of Syria. Israel appears to have become increasingly more engaged with Syria. An examination of the Israeli commitment to Syria since the beginning of the uprising reveals a certain continuity and sheds light on whether there is a real directional shift for Israeli strategy.
2011: surprise and circumspection
While Syrians took to the streets in 2011, Syrian and Israeli authorities pursued tumultuous relations. On the one hand, Bashar al-Asad highly publicised his commitment towards Hizbullah’s struggle against the so-called Zionist state, organising meetings in Damascus, and posing with Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, for example. He also helped transport weapons to Lebanon. On the other hand, al-Asad invited the regional powers to invest in the country and agreed on a new round of negotiations with the Israelis. Chaired by the Americans, Syria and Israel agreed on the main point of contention and seemed ready to find a solution.This policy was part of a broader one towards foreign partners. The Emir of Qatar and the Turks were granted good conditions in which to do business in Syria, while the Gulf elites could buy lands at strategic points. In this regard, the Syrian regime tried to strengthen itself by increasing its resources and stabilising its geopolitical situation in the post-2003 Middle East. It achieved success when French authorities under Sarkozy’s supervision invited Bashar al-Asad to the national celebrations on 14thJuly, 2011 and the Americans initiated discussions to re-open their embassy in Damascus. In this context, both Israel and Syria came closer to settling a major disagreement.
While settling the Lebanese’s issue under international constraint, informally and unofficially, the Syrian regime pursued discussions with the Israelis under American and partly French auspices. Bashar al-Asad sought a peace agreement that would return all Syrian lands to the regime and a financial commitment from the international community that would protect the agreement. Part of the negotiations involved an expectation that the Syrian regime would end its connections with Hizbullah. Decades previously, Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for Syria’s ambiguous diplomatic affinity with Israel. In 1974, Hafez al-Asad signed an agreement to halt strikes against Israel and to stop guerrilla attacks against Israel from its territory, and in exchange, Israel agreed to evacuate part of Syrian territory that it illegally annexed and occupied since 1967. Despite this agreement, Syrian propaganda towards Israel did not change and Hafez and Bashar al-Asad both presented themselves as the vanguard of resistance against Israel via open declaration and tactical support for some of Israel’s opponents. Continuing to covertly help Hamas, Hizbullah, and shelter the PKK was a way for al-Asad to gain traction over American diplomacy without facing retaliation.
Within a month of the start of the Syrian protests in March 2011, it was clear to the main protagonists that the Syrian – Israeli peace process could not continue while the Syrian regime was facing a massive uprising. From the Syrian regime, the cost of peace with Israel was too high because the Syrian rhetoric soon after the protests broke out sought to project the uprising as an ‘international plot against the Resistance’. While the protest spread from the southern part of Syria to other places and started to become organised, the regime focused on curbing the movement by inviting its historical ally, Iran, to help deal with the problem. From the Israeli side, the authorities put the discussions with Syria on hold, waiting to see if– as was the case with the other regimes – Bashar would fall and, if that was the case, therefore preferred to engage in negotiations with a reliable partner. At the same time, in May 2011, Israel did not complain about the tank movement towards the border, as they were deployed to curb the demonstrations in Hawran and the Golan Heights.
Israeli attitudes towards the Syrian crisis quickly took a new shape. A common reaction, both in society and in government, was surprise that popular mobilisation could shake a well-known dictator. During this period, Tel Aviv also witnessed protests, sit-ins and demonstrations calling for a new social contract and demands that state discourse and action move away from ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Arab’ issues towards internal distress. These feelings, nevertheless, did not build the new ‘Syrian’ policy. Israeli attitudes towards Asad’s regime had always been ambiguous. On the one hand, Syria provided assistance to enemies such as Hizbullah, Iran, etc. On the other hand, it had not launched any attacks on Israel since 1974, even in 2006 during the Israeli war against Lebanon, when strong popular pressure from Lebanese and Syrian populations called for an armed response from the Syrian regime.The Syrian revolts, therefore, did not immediately shift Israeli policy towards Syria, but discussions and contact between the two sides came to a standstill as diplomats and politicians awaited a more settled situation.
Tension between two positions (2011-2012)
On 6 June 2011, while protests were now taking place on a national scale, Asad’s regime initiated a tactical move to remind the Middle East of Syria’s abilities to harm the region. Syrian demonstrations celebrated Naqsa Day (the anniversary of Palestine’s losses during the Six-Day war) and protestors forced their way through the barricades on the Golan Heights. One protestor was able to reach his family’s land near Tel Aviv and then surrendered to the Israeli police. The police duly interrogated him about his journey, without any physical coercion, and returned him to the border, where the Syrian moukhabarat arrested him. This episode illustrated in several ways how the Syrians played the Israeli card. They launched a symbolic reconsideration of the status quo but refused local actors – even Palestinians – the freedom to act independently. This new policy provoked several reactions on the Israeli side.
Two main attitudes emerged from the Israeli debates during this period – from the second half of 2011 through the first half of 2012. On the one hand, the long enmity between Israel and Syria prevailed even though both sides undertook peace talks, thus leading some Israeli leaders to seek to undermine the Syrian regime. They voiced the possibility to help topple the regime, requesting either American pressure or support in different ways. The bloodshed also shook Israeli public consciousness. Some wanted to “help the Syrians” and stop what could be the next holocaust. However, these public statements were not connected to any general plan or policy. Therefore, Israeli humanitarian interventions in Syria remained an untaken path because of long-term consideration for the USA’s official policy position on the Syrian civil war.
On the other hand, the main policy position in Israel regarding Syria and military action was “wait and see”. While the Syrian regime was deeply focused on countering the protests, they fulfilled requests by the Israeli Defense Forcesand the Israeli government. The evolution of a revolutionary impulse in Syria concerned Israel on three main counts, and affected its daily activities. First, the collapse of the Asad regime could provoke chaos equivalent to that caused by the Iraqi crisis in 2003. Such a situation produced concerns that it might deeply threaten the common border. Second, Islamist groups could use the opportunity to take root in Syria and thereafter become a new enemy. In this regard, Israel frequently re-affirmed an old credo: “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”. Third, the repressive process of the Syrian regime provided momentum for the Iranian authorities and their allies to extend their positions in Syria. These unfolding developments quickly became a red line for Israel: Iran should not be capable of exchanging weapons on Syrian territory with anyone, and it should not be allowed to build military installations targeting Syrian soil.
The importance of patiently monitoring the unfolding demise of the Syrian state progressively dominated Israeli policy towards Syria. ‘Wait and see’, or “undermining Asad’s capacities without being involved” seemed the best option to the Israelis. This conviction was strengthened by the international community’s attitude, predominantly the Americans. Two milestones marked the path of the American attitude towards the Syrian crisis and signalled American intentions to the Israelis. First, in August 2011, Barak Obama declared that Asad must to step aside.While Syrians interpreted the American position to imply that the USA planned to get involved in the crisis, the Israelis understood perfectly that the Americans did not plan any further intervention in the Middle East at the time they were withdrawing from Iraq. Second, in May 2012, Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if was found to have been perpetrated by the regime, would constitute a red line that might propel American intervention in the Syrian crisis. While several investigations during Spring 2012 provided evidence of wrong-doing by the Syrian regime, the USA did not pursue further action against the Asad government, thus proving to Israeli that the USA merely delivered speeches but rejected any involvement.
On the humanitarian side, Syrian and international NGOs implemented new programmes that mostly targeted the wounded on the Syrian side. They increased their activities during Summer 2012, when the Golan Heights became a theatre of fighting and the number of casualties increased. They participated to a certain extent in the cross-border operations without ever going over the border, as the Syrian civilian and rebel wounded were delivered to the non-military zone on the Golan. These initiatives came mostly from civil society and did not take into consideration the ideological or partisan positions of the wounded. Operations were supervised by the Israel Defence Forces and were the beginning of encroachment of Israel on the Golan front.
2013-2014: Implementing the red line, playing a diplomatic role
In late 2012 and early 2013, the weakening of Asad’s regime led other participants to get involved in the crisis. While foreign fighters entered the ranks of the opposition, other military groups helped the regime to fight against the Free Syrian Army and its allies. In April 2013, Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, recognised that the security of Asad and his organisation went hand in hand. Hizbullah forces then became the vanguard in the battle for the border town of Qusair. On the Syrian stage, Hizbullah’s involvement and its military successes turned the conflict into a more sectarian war than it had been previously. On the regional stage, this change showed Israel that its main enemies were heightening their involvement and interventions in the conflict.
Israel had its own red lines, and it implemented a response to one of those red lines on 31 January 2013. Israel targeted an alleged weapon convoy in the northwestern part of Damascus with an airstrike. This attack took place a week after the formation of Netanyahu’s third government. The Israeli prime minister had just won legislative elections. He immediately put into practice his hard line which he had been promoting for a long period of time. From his perspective, Iran was a danger to Israel and consequently to the world, especially as it sought to develop nuclear weapons. More generally, in his view, the downfall of the Islamic Republic would help to reshuffle the Middle East by allowing Israel’s friends to establish their dominance. The Free Syrian Army confirmed the death of an Iranian officer during the first bombing.
Over the next few months, Netanyahu’s government oscillated between two targets. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched strikes on 3 and 5 May, 2013. Each time the justification was that Israel could not tolerate the planned exchange of high quality weapons. Soon after, Obama declared that “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hizbullah”, and therefore provided American validation and support for the Israeli military incursions in Syria. These interventions, nevertheless, were not in any way part of the American policy towards the Syrian regime. During the Spring, oppositional Syrian fighters received supplies and formed a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ front in Syria. However, these operations were not coordinated because different agencies commanded the fighting without subscribing to a common strategy. From this perspective, the Israeli attacks were one of the several initiatives authorised by the White House to curb recognised terrorist groups without making direct targeting its official policy.
On 5 June, Israel launched a new strike. This episode shed light on another aspect of Israeli politics. The attack – as has been said – targeted once again, a delivery of weapons to Hizbullah. The novelty was the location and the timing. The operation destroyed a convoy just after its formation on Russian military base. Finally, the United States publicised the strike, proving that Israel could act as a sword arm in the Middle East. This attack took place at a time when Russian military capacities were increasing and becoming more closely connected to the Syrian regime and its allies. The year 2013 constituted a turning point for the Israeli strategy and showed that Syrian anti-aircraft defense could not prevent the national territory from attack.
Consequently, during the first half of 2013, Israeli strategy became further clarified. Its enemy in Syria was Iran and its allies. The Syrian regime and its allies could not protect its facilities nor transport weapons. Occasionally, Israel supplied the United States with air power to manifest some of the latter’s commitment. In a sense, Israeli movements clarified the true meaning of the American policy. Two further developments confirmed this assertion. In August 2013, after the massive chemical attacks, Israel did not react when the United States postponed their response which paved the way for Russian re-entrenchment. In September 2014, Israel did not commit itself in the war against the Islamic State. Why? This enemy remained confined to the north-eastern part of Syria and Israeli intelligence monitored enemy progress towards its territory. On the southern Syria front, the al-Nusra front did not threaten Israel. Finally, the only change that came with the expansion of Israeli involvement in the conflict was the deployment and use of artillery and tanks from the Israeli side of the Golan against the Syrian side, targeting both opponents and partisans of the regime. Israel also reminded the Syrian regime of the cost of any counter attack against the coalition by destroying a Syrian airplane on the first day of the war.
Since 2015, playing Russia against Iran
At the beginning of 2015, with the sudden weakening of the Asad regime and the ascendance of autonomous Hizbullah forces on the ground, the main protagonists established front lines and demarcated territories. This reversal of fortune for Asad’s forces led some officers to call for aid. Vladimir Putin then saw a very specific moment for greater Russian involvement. Three factors underpinned his decision. First, Obama ended his presidency and the American administration was paralysed by the transition. Second, some Syrian officers clearly requested Russian intervention and as a result, Russia could establish talks with certain factions. Third, the latest advance of opposition forces on Hama and Deraa fronts put the whole Russian enterprise in jeopardy. In May 2015, Russia undertook the first steps towards a greater commitment in Syria, deploying forces and negotiating a military base for its actions.
On 29 May 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu fled to Moscow and meet Vladimir Putin.He was the only head of State to reach the Russian capital immediately after the redeployment of the Russian army in Syria was first announced. While the United States and Russia did not discuss a further common strategy because Russia did not belong to the international coalition active in Syria against the Islamic State, the prime minister of Israel offered mediation between Israel and Russia on the Syrian files. Their negotiations reached some conclusions, the most important one being the exchange of the code to identify military aircraft flights. Consequently, the IDF and the Russian army could coordinate – or at least know about – attacks from both sides.
Why did Israel and Russia agree on this? The Israeli-American alliance has been well-known since the 1960s. However, since the USSR collapsed, connections between Israel and Russia had increased thanks to the migration of Russian Jews to Israel which motivated increased economic ties with Russia. From this perspective, Russia had an economic interest in Israel, more than in any other country in the Middle East. From the Russian point of view, Israel was important. On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu understood the opportunity to work hand in hand with Russia in order to implement his own agenda. He wanted to assure that Russia would not counter the Israeli strategy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and particularly its struggle against Iran.
Since 2015, major lines have emerged. On the one hand, Russia has operated widely in Syria without acting on the southern front. On the other hand, on several occasions, the Israeli army attacked the Syrian territory, targeting weapons transfers, but it did not involve itself in Russian operations. This was the precise time when Benjamin Netanyahu presented his arguments against Iran and its potential nuclear research to the United Nations General Assembly. Israel nevertheless restrained from a massive operation on Syrian territory while monitoring any further advances of the Iranian army into Syria. In turn, it also looked for allies in the rebels’ brigade that might allow for the protection of the Golan Heights border. This strategy seemed to reproduce Israeli strategy in Lebanon whereby Israel targeted groups against Hizbullah to build a southern protection zone. General fatigue and long-term fights between rebels and the regime explained how and why some groups favoured an alliance with Israel.
The election of Donald Trump changed Netanyahu’s agenda. The new American president deeply committed himself to reversing his predecessor’s politics. He placed troops on the ground in the northern part of Syria, launched further attacks against IS but also targeted the Syrian army when it attempted to encroach on SDF territory. This change in the American approach towards Syria was part of a broader agenda. Trump’s administration quickly adopted a more traditional American policy towards the Middle East that included defending oil roads (that also supported Petromonarchies and their policies) and Israel. Trump asserted three main points: Israel was their greatest ally in the region; the monarchies of the Gulf were strategic allies; the United States had to support leaders whatever their ideologies or policies, if they were in favour of the United States.
Following these new guidelines, Benjamin Netanyahu waited for a clear sign from the White House to act in Syria. He restrained from launching further attacks during the last sequence of the war against IS. Russia then pursued military operations saving the regime and reconquering most strategic places. When major actors took control over major assets, that is protecting the Asad’s regime for the Russians and controlling the North-Eastern part of Syria for the United States, preserving the link between Iraq and Syria, then, the Israeli government deemed it would be empowered to move against its declared enemy: Iran. Why did Iran push further its local presence? This action was most likely a sign for its Syrian supporters. The Iranian authorities acting in Syria failed to notice the American political reverse towards Iran. When President Trump denounced the Iranian nuclear agreement, it paved the way for the Israeli intervention against Iranian troops and facilities inside Syria. Jordan, Israel, and the United States also agreed in 2017 to de-escalate actions in Southern Syria, thereby further highlighting the new geopolitical approach of the region.
Over the past few weeks, Israelis added a new conflict to the ongoing fight. The authorities’ targets are the Iranians building up a new stage for a regional reconfiguration. Iran’s recent actions have further isolated it. The Iranian regime faces opposition from the Gulf countries, internal political forces (as Sadr in Iraq), Israel, and the United States. Israel moved to be the sword arm of this group. On the other side, Russians did not commit themselves in the protection of the Iranians. They even called for the removal of all foreign troops on Syrian soil which included the international coalition and Iran. Consequently, a low level violence conflict will continue for the next few months between Iran and Israel. The grip of Iranian militias on Quneitra, however, has prevented the Israeli from complete control of the border.
The southern battle proved how Russia managed its intelligence’s war by obtaining allegiance from most of the rebels’ leaders. Then, using intense bombing, their followers – mostly elite Syrian troops and militias – reconquered cities and villages. Iran did not take a great part in the operation but its forces rooted in Quneitra had not been removed either. The status quo prevailed. The quick move highlighted the Israeli connections and tractions on the Golan front. Since 2013, Israel had financed nearly 12 rebel groups. Militia chiefs were asked why they agreed on an alliance with Israel, they answered hypocritically that Israel does not target civilians, contrary to Bashar al-Asad. This shift also pinpointed the reverse of the Palestinian cause on Syrian minds. Humanitarian help in the Golan Heights had been maintained until last June as a way to keep the Syrian population in Syria (to mitigate mainly a refugee crisis in Israel), and to respond to requests of the public to save civilians dying on the border. Finally, under Jordan, Canadian and European pressure, Israel helped evacuate White Helmets into Jordan. While the Southern battle is over for at least a few months, none of the Israeli partners seemed to leave Syria. The recent strike around Mezze and in the Alawite mountains clarify Israeli commitment to undermine any Iranian facilities in Syria.
Three main outcomes can be underlined as follows:
- The Golan Heights and Deraa regions can evolve separately after the Southern Syria battle. The Golan Heights may constitute a buffer zone in which Israel and Iran may fight, the former state may strike with air plane and artillery, the latter state may seek to maintain its grip on certain positions. Deraa may return under Syrian and Russian surveillance and constitute a bridge towards Jordan. The reopening of the border will give high value to this territory.
- At the same time, tribal leaders and militia chiefs based in the Golan region may maintain a dual allegiance. Some of them have already made deals with Israel, resulting in retribution against them from the Syrians. The Syrian regime has also begun negotiations to return them to its sphere of influence.
- On a more general level, Israeli strikes will continue, targeting Iranian positions, without leading to any major involvement on the ground. A new situation should emerge at the end of the Southern Front battle.
 Author’s interview with Ambassador Hof, Washington, April 2014.
 Author’s interview with Vladimir Glassman, Paris, December2013.
 Rey, Matthieu (2015). ‘La diplomatie de l’incompréhension.’ Moyen-Orient(automne).