As Syria’s civil war drags on, it is increasingly destabilizing its neighbors. First, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured over their borders; now, violence has as well. Turkey and Syria have repeatedly exchanged deadly cross-border fire ; in Jordan, a soldier was killed in clashes with militants heading for Syria to join the fighting; in Lebanon, the assassination of a senior intelligence official considered close to the Syrian opposition sparked violent clashes in Beirut. Ironically, in fact, Syria’s quietest border nowadays is with Israel – the one neighbor it’s officially at war with. Despite occasional accidents (tanks straying into the demilitarized zone during the ongoing civil war, errant bullets and mortars ), there has been no intentional violence across this border, and no casualties.
Yet in reality, this shouldn’t be surprising; it’s the logical outgrowth of a basic fact about the Middle East that is too often overlooked: Contrary to the popular perception that the region revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the truth is that Israel is irrelevant to most of the region most of the time, because it isn’t a player in the nonstop jockeying for power among the Mideast’s various Muslim sects and countries.
Syria, for instance, is currently the locus of two major intra-Muslim power struggles: that between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and that between Iran and Saudi Arabia (which is closely related but not identical: two years ago, for instance, Sunni Hamas was aligned with Shi’ite Iran, while its Gaza fiefdom was under blockade by Saudi-aligned Sunni Egypt). And with the exception of Israel, all of Syria’s neighbors have taken sides in one or both of these struggles.
Sunni Turkey, though basically neutral in the Saudi-Iranian fight, is openly aiding Sunni Islamists among the Syrian opposition. Sunni Jordan, though wary of Sunni Islamists (who are also the greatest threat to its own regime), is being used by smugglers as a conduit for arms to the Syrian opposition, and its ally in Riyadh would like it to allow such traffic officially. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group, is openly fighting alongside the Iranian-backed Syrian regime, while Lebanese Sunnis back the Syrian opposition. And Shi’ite Iraq lets Iran send arms to the Assad regime through its territory.
Israel, however, has no horse in this race, because both sides dislike it equally: Iran is currently its greatest enemy, yet Sunni Islamists, whose prominence in the Syrian opposition is growing, also pose a major threat. And since Israel isn’t aiding either side, neither government nor opposition forces have any incentive to waste men and munitions on attacking it.
Yet, as recent Mideast history amply shows, Israel’s irrelevance to the conflict now embroiling the rest of the region isn’t exceptional, but the norm. Think back to the last time a Mideast conflict involved as many countries as Syria’s now does, and one fact leaps out: Israel wasn’t a party to it.
Israel has conducted three major military operations over the last decade: against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank in 2002, against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and against Hamas in Gaza in 2009. Yet none of these prompted any involvement beyond the rhetorical from any other Mideast country, with the partial exception of Iran, which resupplied Hamas and Hezbollah afterward.
In contrast, several Arab countries actively aided the opposition during last year’s Libyan civil war, while Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in 2011 to support the Sunni government against a Shi’ite opposition it viewed as Iranian-backed. And in the 1991 Gulf War, almost every country in the region joined an American-led alliance to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Saddam Hussein, like many Mideast rulers, frequently proclaimed his desire to annihilate Israel. But the two countries he actually tried to annihilate were Iran, via an inconclusive war in 1980-88, and Kuwait. The reason was simple: Saddam wasn’t a fanatic ideologue committed to waging holy war on behalf of a cause, but a run-of-the-mill dictator whose main interest was augmenting his own power, and who therefore aspired to dominate the region. And to do that, Saddam needed to vanquish not Israel – which doesn’t care who dominates the rest of the region as long as it is left alone, and thus rarely takes sides in regional power plays – but his rivals for regional domination.
The revolutionary Shi’ite government that seized power in Iran in 1979 was a clear rival to Saddam, and particularly threatening to his Sunni-minority rule of Shi’ite-majority Iraq. Kuwait, though no threat in itself, had lucrative oil fields that would bolster Iraq financially (and thus militarily) in its bid for regional dominance, and due to its close alliance with another aspirant for regional dominance, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s conquest would also undermine Riyadh’s prestige.
This power struggle also explains why most Mideast countries joined the effort to oust Saddam from Kuwait: They wanted to prevent him from achieving regional dominance.
And Israel? The man who launched two full-scale wars against his Muslim neighbors launched a token 40 Scuds at Israel in 1991, and even that mainly in hopes of disrupting the American-led alliance; most of his opponents have never attacked Israel directly at all. For all their talk, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply isn’t that important to them.
Iran’s nuclear program offers further evidence against the theory of Palestinian centrality. Virtually every Arab leader has urged Washington to take military action against Iran. Some even openly support Israeli military action; others are thought to do so quietly (hence the persistent rumors of Israeli-Saudi cooperation on this issue). Yet Israel’s reputed nuclear arsenal provokes no similar hysteria among Arab regimes. Why? Because they know Israel isn’t interested in regional domination; its putative nuclear arsenal is only for self-defense. Iran, in contrast, openly seeks regional domination and wants nuclear weapons partly to further that goal. Hence Israel’s weapons aren’t a threat, but Iran’s are.
Clearly, ideology can be a very powerful motivator. Israel, founded after a war that saw Hitler diverting desperately needed resources from the war front to the cause of slaughtering Jews until the bitter end, knows this better than most. That’s why it takes the genocidal rhetoric emanating from Iran’s leaders – men fanatic enough to send hordes of children to clear minefields with their bodies during the Iran-Iraq War – with utmost seriousness, especially when coupled with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But most Mideast leaders aren’t ideological zealots; they’re ordinary rulers concerned primarily with their own interests. They pay lip service to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because pro-Palestinian rhetoric serves as public diplomacy in their regional power game: It paints the speaker as concerned with “oppressed fellow Muslims” and opposed to “Western colonialism” (i.e. non-Muslim Israel), and hence suited for regional leadership. But it’s a great mistake to confuse such rhetoric with reality.
What chiefly concerns most of these countries is the regional balance of power between rival Muslim sects and states. And in this, neither Israel nor its conflict with the Palestinians is a player.
In fact, far from being the axis around which the region revolves, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as the Syrian crisis once again shows – barely rates as a sideshow.
Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.