No Matter Who Wins the Syrian Civil War, Israel Loses
Assad is Iran’s most important Arab ally; his would-be successors are Sunni militias and jihadists. Netanyahu’s overtures to Putin can’t change that.
If you want to understand Israel’s ambivalence about the outcome of Syria’s war, look no further than Avigdor Lieberman. In 2016, Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish defense minister, condemned Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, as a “butcher.” He asserted Israel’s moral imperative to oppose genocide, born from the Holocaust, as a reason to oppose the Syrian government’s massacres. It is in Israel’s interest, he added, that Assad and his Iranian allies “be thrown out of Syria.” Fast forward to earlier this month. While touring Israeli air-defense units, Lieberman struck an optimistic note about Assad’s gaining strength, saying it means “there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule” in Syria. Asked whether he believed this would decrease the possibility of clashes on Israel’s northern border, he said: “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”
Those two positions represent Israel’s conflicted priorities in Syria. On the one hand, Assad is Iran’s most important ally in the Arab world—the state he rules provides Tehran with access to Israel’s northern border, and facilitates the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. On the other hand, Assad—his government’s fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric notwithstanding—represents a known quantity to Israel, unlike the chaotic tangle of Sunni militias and jihadist organizations that would replace him. Until recently, Israel’s border with Syria had been its quietest frontier for four decades.
While Israel has refrained from trying to shape the outcome of the Syrian war, it has aggressively pursued a narrow set of goals designed to protect its interests. It launched an air campaign to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria or transferring advanced missiles to Hezbollah. It funded and armed Syrian rebel groups in the south to keep Iran and its allies away from its border, and retaliated when either side fired shots that landed in territory under its control. And finally, the Israeli militaryprepared to prevent any rebel advance into parts of southern Syria occupied by the Druze, an ethnic group that incorporates elements of Islam as well as other religions, due to pressure from its own Druze population, which feared the consequence of the rebels’ conquest of the area.
While this strategy has insulated Israelis from the bloodshed in Syria, it has done little to prevent a worst-case scenario for Israel from taking hold in Damascus. A resurgent Assad is consolidating his control over his country, buoyed by unprecedented support from Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and Hezbollah fighters in Syria have expanded and strengthened their military networks, and now possess advanced long-range missiles capable of bringing unprecedented destruction to Israeli cities. On Monday, Iran and Syria reportedly signed a deal for further military cooperation.
Israel, in turn, has launched more than 100 airstrikes against Hezbollah arms convoys since the beginning of the war to counter this threat. Earlier this month, it also reportedly used a car bomb to assassinate a Syrian scientist who played a leading role in the country’s advanced-missile program. “We can do a lot,” Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told me. “We cannot do everything, but we can do a lot to force the Iranians to decide if they are ready to pay the price” for their intervention in Syria.
Netanyahu has invested an extraordinary amount of time in his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, in order to keep up the pressure on Iran and its allies. They have met face to face nine times since Russia’s military intervention on Assad’s behalf in 2015—more than Netanyahu has met with any other world leader. As a result of this diplomatic effort, Moscow has refrained from using its air defenses to strike Israeli warplanes when they enter Syrian airspace to target Iranian or Hezbollah fighters.
Israel’s reliance on Russia is a result of President Donald Trump’s hostility to a long-term commitment to Syria. Trump told the military earlier this year to prepare to withdraw all U.S. soldiers from the country, and earlier this month announced that the United States would not spend $230 million that had been earmarked to help rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure. “If you’re an Israeli policy maker and you’re looking at Syria, you see Russia is there and obviously staying,” Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former chief negotiator with Syria in the 1990s, told me. “And you see the United States—the president says one day that he wants to withdraw the 2,000 [American] troops, and the next day he faces some pressure and keeps them there. But is that reliable in the long term? Doubtful.”
Israel’s collaboration with Russia is based out of necessity, rather than any faith that Moscow has taken its side in its regional confrontation with Iran. Both Assad and his Iranian allies, after all, were steadily losing ground in 2015 until Putin’s military intervention changed the course of the war. Israeli officials have largely dismissed Russia’s promises that it could keep Iranian forces 53 miles away from the Israeli border—such promises meant little, they said, when Iran has missiles that can travel more than 100 miles.
Israel’s ties with Russia represent “an interest-based relationship,” Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and prominent opposition leader, told me. “I doubt Russia is currently capable of driving Iran out of Syria or that Russia will undertake that effort just because of Israel.”
Those doubts about Putin’s willingness and ability to constrain Iran are only increasing. A recent article published by the Washington, D.C.–based Middle East Institute analyzed several signs that Russia is quietly reducing its military presence on the ground in Syria, a step that would only decrease Putin’s leverage with Iran and Assad. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies have embedded themselves within Syrian security institutions, making it impossible to distinguish them from the country’s regular army.
This development could spell the end for Israeli-Russian cooperation in Syria. “Israeli officials increasingly argue that the time for this to work has expired,” Hanna Notte, a Russia analyst and political officer for the Shaikh Group, a political consultancy, said. “There is an argument that it will become increasingly difficult to target [Iran and Hezbollah] without striking Syrian soldiers, and Russia won’t be able to turn a blind eye to that.”
As Israel’s military officials grapple with this dilemma, some of its political leaders have sought to use the war to solidify their country’s hold over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategically important area during the 1967 war, and subsequently annexed it in 1981. No country, however, has recognized the Golan as Israeli territory. Prominent Israeli politicians, such as Lapid and current Education Minister Naftali Bennett, are now pressing the United States to recognize Israel’s annexation of the territory.
Lapid in particular has actively pursued the issue, raising it during a meeting with U.S. lawmakers in Washington and delivering a speech before the Knesset on the topic. “Anyone with an understanding of the Middle East knows that Israel will never return the Golan Heights to Assad, a mass murderer whose partners, Iran and Hezbollah, are sworn to our destruction,” he told me. “Recognition of Israeli sovereignty is historically just, strategically smart, and will allow the world to extract a price from Assad for his despicable behavior without putting boots on the ground in Syria.”
The Trump administration is clearly signaling that it has no appetite for recognizing Israel’s hold over the Golan in the near term. National-Security Adviser John Bolton said last week that there was “no discussion” of the topic within the administration, and “there’s no change in the U.S. position for now.” A proposal put forth by Republican Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida over the summer to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory was similarly scuttled by Republican House leadership. But proponents of the idea, buoyed by Trump’s recognition last year of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, plan to continue pushing the subject, and hope to make progress after the midterm elections.
As these political and military dramas play out, there is little question about a fundamental fact—Iran and its allies are poised to challenge Israel on multiple fronts in the years ahead. In Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah boasts more fighters and better weapons than at any point in its history. Earlier this year, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Israel engaged in a series of tit-for-tat clashes for months before a cease-fire took hold. And in Iran, there is a growing risk that the Islamic Republic could restart its nuclear program following the Trump administration’s decision to reimpose sanctions on the country.
“The goal is to encircle Israel with these proxies that could enmesh it in a series of open-ended, low-level conflicts that make life there unbearable,” Michael Eisenstadt a former U.S. army officer who is currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. “The idea is to set in motion a long-term process of decline.”