By Barry Rubin
There are some subtle issues coming out of the Syrian civil war for Israel. It is clear that Israel is neutral regarding the war, that it won’t get dragged into the civil war, and that the longer the war goes on it is better as long as it doesn’t damage Israeli national security.
It should be equally clear, however, that in the end Israel wants the rebels to win. Syria’s regime is supported by Hizballah, Iran, and the Assad government. These are the greater of the two evils. The coup against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood regime greatly reduced the threat of Sunni Islamism.compared to that of Iran.
Again, it should be underlined, however, that the difference isn’t perceived as huge. Military institutions are generally more favorable to the rebels, given their anti-Iran nuclear weapons’ emphasis. Other agencies remember, however, that a Sunni Islamist Syria would still be a problem.
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There are several other aspects, however, of the Syrian situation for Israel.
Hamas: With Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood thrown out of office, Hamas poses much less of a threat. Instead of having Egypt as a patron, Egypt is now a greater enemy than it was under Mubarak. That then breaks up the issue of a Brotherhood Egypt, Hamas, and Syria.
Egypt: And speaking of Egypt, the transformation for Israel’s strategy almost approaches the victory of the 1967 war except this is not a victory over Egypt but a tremendous enhancement of cooperation. The threat of the dissolution of the peace treaty and a potential new war has been replaced by a prospect of deeper peace and more strategic help.
The draining of terrorist resources and energies. Syria is now a target, as well as Iraq for Sunni terrorists; and now so does Egypt, too.
The Golan Heights: Israel will not come down from the strategic Golan for “forever.” With either Sunni or Shia extremists in charge of Syria, the anti-Israel stance of Syria is going to be strong under any conceivable government. At the same time, that Syrian government will be weaker. The United States is in temporary or permanent eclipse and cannot possibly—and will not—exercise major leverage on Syria. You can bet that without a utopian transformation of the region Israel will remain on the Golan.
Lebanon: It seems equally clear that Hizballah has very much reduced support from the Lebanese, Syria, Sunni Islamist leaders, and others. Given this situation, Hizballah cannot attack Israel, certainly not while its best troops are tied down in Syria. And if the rebels win in Syria, they will take on Hizballah, also supporting Lebanese Sunni Islamists. Hizballah will be too busy fighting against fellow Arabs to start a war with Israel.
Kurds: This is the best moment for Kurds politically in modern history, with a ceasefire with Turkey and its help in Syria; a de facto state in northern Iraq though it will not be a full-fledged state; and autonomy in Syria. Central and southern Iraq are booming with terrorism but Kurdistan (the Kurdish Regional Government) is booming with prosperity.
The fact is that the Kurds do not share in the Arab blood feud with Israel. In both Iraq and Syria, the Kurds want good relations and commerce with Israel. Whether the dealings would be overt or covert, this new political relationship is going to be a significant factor in the Middle East.
Druze: The Druze have a tougher time since they do not have a strategic boundary with a friendly country as do the Kurds. Nevertheless the Druze are at a historical turning point. They have given their loyalty to the Syrian regime, with the Golani Druze showing special devotion fueled largely by fear that some day the Golan would be returned to Syria and the treatment of relatives on the other side of the border if they did not support the dictatorship.
Now, however, they see the Assad regime in trouble. At this point the loyalty must be questioned. Would a Sunni Islamist regime be so kind to them? On the one hand, the Druze have served not with the rebels but with the regime. Second, when all is said and done the Druze are infidels, even worse former Muslims centuries ago.Of course, the Druze still in Syria will claim their devotion to the Sunni Islamist regime in the hope of not being massacred.
But Druze from the Golan have asked Israeli authorities about bringing in refugees from Syria. Might persecuted Druze take Israeli citizenship and take the step of joining their fate, as individuals or collectively, with Israel as their cousins across the border did in 1948?
Iran: Obviously, if the regime loses in Syria that will weaken Iran. But there’s something more here. If Iran losesthe civil war any thought of Tehran bidding for Arab hegemony because the split between Sunni and Shia is so bloody and passionate. But, if Iran wins the bitterness has the same effect. The dominant conflict in the region is now the Sunni-Shia one.
And with Middle East hegemony out of Iran’s reach, Iran has less reason to threaten Israel or to consider using nuclear weapons against it. Why would Tehran do so when it will not impress the Arabs anyway and in fact Tehran is in the middle of an all-out battle with the Sunni Arabs?
Christians: While Israel only has about a 2 percent Christian minority (about 150,000 people), there seems to be some change. A priest and a young woman have spoken for support despite harassment and an Arab Christian party is forming. These will probably not catch on with large numbers of people but with the conflict against Israel being joined by the conflict against Christian Arabs–including real intimidation of Christians on the West Bank by Muslims must have some effect. This has been added to with a war on Christians in Egypt (Copts will be big targets in the coming Islamist insurgency and the new government won’t provide much protection), Syria, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip. Where else do Christians have a safe haven in he region?
Finally, Syria has done something momentous in regional terms. It has broken the myth of the “Israel card” or of “linkage.” You can’t still argue that an Arab ruler can make political capital by blaming Israel or that solving the Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian conflict will fix everything in the region.
Given the peculiarities of Western diplomacy, this doesn’t seem to put much of a dent in “linkage,” the idea that the “Arab-Israeli conflict” (perhaps we should start putting it in quotation marks, is the prime problem, passionate priority, and always the key to solving the Middle East. Lots of people in the West believe this idea but surely it must be fewer though still numerous due to misinformation, diplomatic interests, and misunderstanding of the Middle East?
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.