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A man holds a roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in support of him in Damascus, 2011. (Khaled al-Hariri / Courtesy Reuters)
In October 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to inform him that peace was at hand between Israel and Syria. Two weeks later, Rabin was dead, killed by a reactionary Jewish Israeli fanatic; the peace agreement that Rabin referenced died not long thereafter. But Israeli hopes for an eventual agreement with the Assad regime managed to survive. There have been four subsequent attempts by Israeli prime ministers -- one by Ehud Barak, one by Ehud Olmert, and two by Benjamin Netanyahu -- to forge a peace with Syria.
This shared history with the Assad regime is relevant when considering Israel’s strategy toward the ongoing civil war in Syria. Israel’s most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed. Israel will intervene in Syria when it deems it necessary; last week’s attacks testify to that resolve. But it is no accident that those strikes were focused solely on the destruction of weapons depots, and that Israel has given no indication of wanting to intervene any further. Jerusalem, ultimately, has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
Israel knows one important thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years, they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border. Technically, the two countries have always been at war -- Syria has yet to officially recognize Israel -- but Israel has been able to count on the governments of Hafez and Bashar Assad to enforce the Separation of Forces Agreement from 1974, in which both sides agreed to a cease-fire in the Golan Heights, the disputed vantage point along their shared border. Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war, the border remained quiet.
Israel does not feel as confident, though, about the parties to the current conflict, and with good reason. On the one hand, there are the rebel forces, some of whom are increasingly under the sway of al Qaeda. On the other, there are the Syrian government’s military forces, which are still under Assad’s command, but are ever more dependent on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, which is also Iranian-sponsored. Iran is the only outside state with boots on the ground in Syria, and although it is supporting Assad, it is also pressuring his government to more closely serve Iran’s goals -- including by allowing the passage of advanced arms from Syria into southern Lebanon. The recent visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Salehi to Damascus, during which he announced that Iran would not allow Assad to fall under any circumstances, further underscored the depth of Iran’s involvement in the fighting. It is entirely conceivable, in other words, that a post-Assad regime in Syria would be explicitly pro–al Qaeda or even more openly pro-Iran. Either result would be unacceptable to Israel.
Of course, an extended civil war in Syria does not serve Israel’s interests either. The ongoing chaos is attracting Islamists from elsewhere in the region, and threatening to destabilize Israel’s entire neighborhood, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It could also cause Assad to lose control of -- or decide to rely more on -- his stockpile of chemical weapons.
Even though these problems have a direct impact on Israel, the Israeli government believes that it should deal with them in a way that does not force it to become a kingmaker over Assad’s fate. Instead, it would prefer to maintain neutrality in Syria's civil war. Israel does not want to tempt Assad to target Israel with his missile stockpile -- nor does it want to alienate the Alawite community that will remain on Israel’s border regardless of the outcome of Syria’s war.
Last week’s attacks were a case in point. Israel did not hesitate to order air strikes when it had intelligence that arms were going to be funneled from Syria to Hezbollah. Although Israel took care not to assume official responsibility for the specific attack, Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon publicly stated that Israel’s policy was to prevent the passage of strategic weaponry from Syria to Lebanon. But parallel with that messaging, Israel also made overt and covert efforts to communicate to Assad that Jerusalem was determined to remain neutral in Syria’s civil war. The fact that those messages were received in Damascus was reflected in the relatively restrained response from the Assad regime: a mid-level Foreign Ministry official offered a public denouncement of Israel -- and even then the Syrian government offered only a vague promise of reprisal, vowing to respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.
As brutal as the Syrian war has become, Israel believes that another international crisis is even more urgent: Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear program. Jerusalem has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran. In the interim, Israel wants to focus its own finite resources on that crisis -- and it would prefer that the rest of the world does the same.
That is not to say that Israel will make efforts to actively support Assad; like most other countries, Israel believes that it is only a matter of time until the Syrian leader is forced from power. But a country of Israel’s size needs to prioritize its foreign policy goals, and Jerusalem does not feel like helping shape an adequate alternative to Assad is in its interest or within its capacity. It will leave that task to others. Indeed, Israel has welcomed the initiative by Russia and the United States to organize a peace conference aimed at resolving the conflict. In the run-up to the conference, Jerusalem will be sure to remind both Washington and Moscow that they share an interest in preventing a permanent Iranian or jihadist presence on Syrian soil.
In that sense, it is safe to say that Assad is not the only recipient of covert communications from Israel. That leaves two questions -- when the White House will decide what its own policy will be, and how it will implement it.