Israel faces tough choices as Syrian war hits the border

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Before last week, the Syrian civil war’s trajectory seemed clear.

Sooner or later, the rebels would win – either deposing Syrian President Bashar Assad or driving him into a small northern enclave. And Assad’s fall would deal a blow to Iran and Hezbollah, Syria’s two strongest regional allies.

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Years of anarchy would follow, and Israeli experts feared attacks from a no-man’s-land of terrorists next to the Golan Heights. But many said that was a small price to pay for a weaker Hezbollah, an isolated Iran and the fall of a tyrant who was no friend of Israel.

In the meantime, the most Israel could do was defend its borders and stay out of the way.

Recently, that trajectory appears to have taken a sharp turn. Assad is resurgent. So is Hezbollah, fighting alongside him.

And as the United Nations’ peacekeeping force crumbles, Israel has inched increasingly closer to fighting in Syria – though Israeli intervention remains unlikely.

On Monday, following threats by Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Anyone who threatens to hit or hits Israel will be hit.”

Netanyahu’s sharp words follow a tense exchange between Israel and Syria last week. On Thursday, June 6, Syrian rebels captured Quneitra, Syria’s lone border crossing with Israel, prompting heavy fighting that saw Syrian tanks enter the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Israel threatened to strike the tanks, according to a leaked United Nations document, refraining only when Syria promised to fire solely on rebel troops.

Israel has thrice attacked Syrian weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah – once in January and twice in May. But this was the first time Israel has threatened to engage Syrian forces directly.

It may not be the last. After Syria retook the border crossing, the United Nations’ peacekeeping force there shrunk by a third as Austria withdrew its 300-man contingent. Speaking to his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said that “The crumbling of the UN force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security.”

But Thursday’s battle probably won’t change Israel’s approach to the two-year strife next door. The Syrian border has been largely calm since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel won’t enter the civil war “as long as fire is not being directed at us.”

Rather than “go in and decide who’s better for Israel,” says Syria expert Ely Karmon of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel should continue to keep its distance as the two sides weaken each other.

That attitude also plays well with ordinary Israelis. An Israel Democracy Institute poll released Sunday showed that 86 percent of Israeli respondents want their country to stay out of the conflict.

More than three-quarters of respondents, though, praised Israel’s weapons convoy attacks – a policy that will most likely continue despite Syrian threats of reprisal. Israeli officials have long feared that Assad’s weapons of mass destruction will be aimed at Israel if they fall into Hezbollah’s control.

But even without the weapons, Hezbollah could be getting stronger. The organization formally committed its troops to fight for Assad in May, and scored a major victory last week when Assad captured Qusayr, a key city between the Lebanese border and the rebel stronghold of Homs.

If Hezbollah succeeds in helping Assad survive, both promise and peril await the terrorist group. On one hand, it will be a major victory for a group previously confined to Lebanon.

On the other hand, Hezbollah has long commanded respect in Lebanon and across the Arab world for its fight against Israel, the group’s raison d’etre. Now, Hezbollah has shown that “it’s a foreign body in Lebanon that serves foreign interests,” says Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. By turning its guns against fellow Muslims, the group “has fallen to its nadir” in the region.

An Assad victory likewise holds pros and cons for Israel. Brom says that a stable Alawite enclave would give Israel “an address on the other side” that won’t exist if the country descends into anarchy.

That enclave, though, could end up hurting Israel. While Syria hasn’t attacked the Golan Heights in nearly four decades, Assad does funnel weapons to Hezbollah – which he could continue to do after the war ends.

No matter who wins, says Karmon, the prognosis for Israel remains the same: stay on guard, and stay out of the way.

“Israel has an interest that the two sides will keep fighting,” he said. “We need to wait and see who will control Syria.”

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.