The Syrian Crisis and Israeli Security Challenges
The Syrian Civil War has been raging for more than four years. It has affected regional and international balances. Developments in Syria are of intense and of vital national interest to Israel. The Bashar al-Assad regime and its Iranian backers have been a major source of concern to Israeli leaders. On the other hand, the rise of Islamist organizations from al-Nusra Front to the Islamic State is no source of comfort either. This panel will discuss Israeli viewpoints and national security calculations vis-à-vis the events in Syria.
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Three experts on Israel discussed the challenges to Israel’s security threat posed by the Syrian civil war, the effect of regional and international influences, and the future of Israeli security policy.
On December 17, 2015, the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted the event “The Syrian Crisis and Israeli Security Challenges” with Michael Koplow, Policy Director, Israel Policy Forum; Yoram Peri, Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies, Director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the conversation.
Koplow began the conversation by discussing the long-term and short-term threats to Israeli security. He stated there is no consensus in Israel about how to proceed with the Syrian civil war and there are a range of opinions among Israeli security and political officials about what the best outcome would be. Koplow mentioned that the prevailing opinion among Israeli security officials is that Bashar al-Assad is the more pressing threat because of his close relationship to Iran and, therefore, Hezbollah. According to Koplow, most Israeli security officials see a war in the north with Hezbollah as inevitable. This poses a major security risk because Hezbollah fighters have developed battlefield experience in Syria and have acquired a large amount of precision guided missiles.
Koplow stated that ISIS and other “black flag” groups also present a significant long-term threat to Israeli security because of their pervasive ideology and unpredictable and undeterrable nature. He said the recently discovered links between ISIS in Sinai and Hamas are a concern for Israel because it does not want ISIS to gain influence in either Gaza or the West Bank. The threat of ISIS’s influence has caused Israeli politicians to question the outcome of a two-state solution, citing worries about ISIS-affiliated groups filling the power vacuum if Israel were to cede control.
Peri elaborated on these security threats by outlining the three premises that should guide Israeli decision-making regarding Syria. These principles took into consideration the unstable and chaotic nature of the conflict in Syria. His first premise is that Israel should practice modesty in policymaking. Secondly, Peri explained that Israeli officials have accepted that Syria will not return to the pre-war conditions of a unified state. His third premise is that Israeli policy should not have a long-term aim but take a short-tern tactical approach that prioritizes Israel’s security.
Using these three premises, Peri then discussed Israel’s six security policy principles that reflect Israel’s primary concern of southern Syria. The first principle is Israel should not be directly involved in the Syrian civil war due to the complicated nature of the conflict. Secondly, it is better for Israel’s security to work with states rather than non-state actors. Thirdly, Iran and Hezbollah pose a much more severe threat than ISIS because Iran and Hezbollah pose a much greater conventional military threat. Fourthly, Israel will prevent any use of Syrian territory to carry out operations against Israel. Fifthly, the stability of Jordan is important and Israel must support Jordan in any way it can. His final principle is Israel has a commitment to the Druze in the Hadar region in Syria.
Wittes elaborated on Israel’s policy options regarding the Syrian civil war by stating that Israel’s policy is beginning to shift. She noted that Assad is losing legitimacy and Israel is considering what its preferred outcome of the conflict would be. Wittes also agreed with the previous speakers by saying that Iranian influence in Syria—specifically southern Syria—poses a much greater threat to Israel than the presence of ISIS in Syria. She cited instances of direct Israeli action against Hezbollah and inaction against Jabhat al-Nusra as a reflection of Israel’s security priorities.
Wittes continued by asserting that Israel has a limited capacity to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict going forward. Israel is not involved in the Vienna talks, and therefore can only indirectly influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict. This indirect influence would consist of Israeli communicating its diplomatic preferences with the United Sates and Russia and intelligence sharing with the Arab states. Wittes stated that given the current relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is unlikely that Israel can significantly strengthen its relationship with the Arab states.
Wittes then discussed potential circumstances in which Israel would choose to exercise unilateral action. She indicated that Israel would respond unilaterally to Hezbollah attacks into Israel, jihadi activity in Lebanon, and ISIS’s infiltration into the Palestinian territories.
During the question and answer portion of the event, Barkey inquired whether armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah would jeopardize the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Wittes and Koplow both said that the Iran deal is too important to the P5+1 and Iran and would stand if a war between Israel and Hezbollah were to break out. Peri believes that a war between Israel and Hezbollah is unlikely because Hezbollah is significantly weakened due to its involvement in the Syrian conflict.
On the topic of infiltration of ISIS into Palestinian areas, Peri, Wittes, and Koplow asserted that Israeli politicians do not want to reconcile with Palestinians because of the current unstable political environment. According to Peri, a majority of Israelis are more concerned with strengthening security interests and preserving the status quo. Koplow agreed and stated that many Israeli politicians believe that Israel should maintain control over the West Bank to preserve security interests.
In response to a question on mitigating potential conflict with Russia in Syria, Wittes said the Russians will remain in Syria and are committed to selling arms to the Assad regime. Koplow said Israel does not intend to force Russia out of the region; Israel’s main priority is to avoid potential conflicts with Russia over Syrian air space.
Regarding a question about whether Israel was safer before the Syrian civil war, Peri and Wittes agreed the Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the civil war poses a substantial security threat. Koplow stated Israel is less safe because the Syrian civil war has introduced a significant amount of instability into the region.
By: Nathan Odendahl, Middle East Program
Henri J. Barkey
Middle East Program
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