(Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a longer essay by Gen. Herzog, who is currently The Washington Institute’s Milton Fine International Fellow. He was formerly head of the IDF’s Strategic Planning Division and chief of staff to Israel’s defense minister.)
Syria has become the epicentre of global jihad, regional turmoil and a humanitarian catastrophe, emitting waves of terrorism, instability and refugees far beyond the Middle East. What started as a civilian protest five years ago has turned into a bitter sectarian and proxy battle-ground, drawing in thousands of young Muslims — Sunnis and Shiites — to rival camps, as well as external forces competing to shape the end-game.
Whilst the war in Syria sends destabilizing shock-waves to neighbouring countries, Israel has been the least affected, successfully staying away from a war in which it does not have a direct stake. But whilst it is part of neither the war nor the diplomatic efforts, Israel remains an important stakeholder in the future of its northern neighbour.
Looking at Syria and Iraq, Israelis naturally share Western concerns over the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), and its capacity to project both terrorism and its ideological message around the region and the world. ISIS not only represents a radical anti-Western ideology but is also virulently and explicitly anti-Semitic. It already has affiliates operating along Israel’s borders with Egypt and Syria and it poses a direct threat to key Western ally Jordan.
However, at this point ISIS is not focused on Israel, and is therefore not considered by Israelis to be a direct and immediate strategic threat to them. From an Israeli perspective, the gravest strategic threat still comes from the Iranian-led axis.
Iran is a regional power deeply hostile to Israel, harbouring hegemonic and nuclear ambitions and commanding the region’s most heavily armed sub-state actor, Hezbollah, with over 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. Assad’s remaining territory in Syria serves as a vital conduit for feeding, replenishing and upgrading Hezbollah’s huge rocket arsenal. Iran also supports terror groups in Gaza, seeks to establish terror infrastructure in the West Bank, supports Hezbollah’s international terror network and activities and launches continuous cyber-attacks against Israel. That is why Israelis judge developments in Syria first and foremost in the broader context of the danger posed by this axis.
Israeli concerns were further exacerbated by the nuclear deal between Iran and the international community, which Israelis perceive as boosting Iran in the context of a region in meltdown. Indeed, hopes that the deal might improve the situation in Syria have proven unrealistic. It is highly likely that the Iranian nuclear deal that answered a paramount Russian interest, as well as the perception in Moscow of American weakness, cleared the way in Russia’s mind to deploy militarily in Syria in order to save Assad and boost its own standing. Consequently, the emboldened Iran-Assad axis has escalated its military operations under Russia’s air umbrella, focusing on anti-Assad elements rather than on ISIS. In response, Gulf states are ramping up their support to Sunni rebel groups. With more fuel on the fire come more refugees.
But the negative fallout of the nuclear deal goes further. Since the deal was finalised, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly slammed the door on Western hopes to effectively expand cooperation and ordered a ban on imports from the US. Iran test-fired a new ballistic missile in contravention of a UN Security Council resolution and announced it will increase its defense budget by over 30 per cent. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen to new heights, including, at the end of September, the Saudi interception of an Iranian ship laden with missiles allegedly bound for Iran’s proxies in Yemen. For now, President Obama’s expressed hope that the nuclear deal will enable regional ‘equilibrium’ seems a distant dream.
The current diplomatic efforts are predicated on three key assumptions, all of which are flawed. First, that there is a visible horizon for putting Syria back together as one functioning political entity. Second, that a diplomatic solution is a pre-requisite to defeating ISIS. Third, that the major stakeholders in Syria can currently agree on a common goal and implement it.
In reality, it is hard to see Syria reunified as one functioning political entity in the foreseeable future. Defeating ISIS is a pre-requisite to a solution in Syria (if there is one to be had), rather than the other way round, while the likelihood of currently securing an agreement that will be implemented by the stakeholders is very slim.
Furthermore, while negotiating on how to extinguish the fire, some of the players, especially Russia, Iran and the Gulf states, are fanning the flames since they understand that strength and position on the ground will dictate the political outcome.
As the Syrian cauldron continues to boil over, Israel’s own actions will remain focused on preventing developments which directly threaten its security. First, there is the challenge of hostile actors positioning themselves in the Golan Heights along Israel’s border with Syria and turning it into an active front with established military infrastructure and cross-border attacks. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and some ISIS-affiliated elements such as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade are already there, though currently focused on fighting Assad’s forces and their allies. Meanwhile the Iran-led axis has been striving, so far with little success, to establish itself along both the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Should Hezbollah and other Iran-backed forces succeed, their deployment could constitute a serious security threat to Israel and cause direct friction between Israel and Iran. Indeed, in January 2015, an Iranian general and several Hezbollah operatives found their death while touring the Syria-Israel border in an operational mission.
No less challenging for Israel is the shipment through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon of strategic weapons such as sophisticated Russian ground-to-air SA17/22 missiles, accurate Iranian Fateh-110 rockets or the Russian SS-N-26 anti-ship Yakhont Cruise missiles, which could all serve as game changers in a future conflict with Israel. In recent years Israel has reportedly carried out numerous airstrikes against such shipments. Russia’s air campaign in Syria, based on the deployment of combat planes, radars and air defense systems, now adds concerns over Israel’s freedom of action.
Meanwhile, it is highly important to prevent Iran and its proxies, as well as Sunni jihadists, from establishing a foothold in the south of Syria, which could threaten Israel and Jordan. Israel is alert to this danger and is likely to take independent action to protect its interests if necessary.
Whilst a comprehensive solution for Syria looks beyond reach in the foreseeable future, the situation nonetheless demands urgent and far-reaching action guided by a long-term view. Without such action, the threat to the stability of states in the region as well as security in the West will only continue to grow. One can only hope that the political will for such action will not be generated by further terror attacks in the West.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of Fathom (http://fathomjournal.org/).