Some subtle issues are coming out of the Syrian civil war regarding Israel: clearly, Israel is neutral regarding the war; it won’t get dragged into it; and the longer the war continues the better, as long as it doesn’t damage Israeli national security.
It should be equally clear, however, that in the end Israel wants the rebels to win.
Syria’s regime is supported by Hizballah, Iran, and the Assad government – they are the greater of the two evils. The coup against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood regime greatly reduced the threat from Sunni Islamism; that threat is smaller compared to Iran. It should be underlined, however, that the difference isn’t perceived as huge.
Following are several other aspects of the Syrian situation affecting Israel:
With Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood thrown out of office, Hamas poses much less of a threat. Instead of having Egypt as a patron, Egypt is now a greater enemy than it was under Mubarak. This breaks up the issue of an aligned Brotherhood Egypt, Hamas, and Syria.
The transformation of Israel’s strategy almost approaches that following the victory of the 1967 war, except this is not a victory over Egypt but rather a tremendous enhancement of cooperation. The threat of the dissolution of the peace treaty and a potential new war has been replaced by a prospect of deeper peace and more strategic help.
The draining of terrorist resources and energies
Syria is now a target along with Iraq for Sunni terrorists; Egypt, too.
The Golan Heights
Israel will not exit the strategic Golan for “forever.” With either Sunni or Shia extremists in charge of Syria, the anti-Israel stance of Syria is going to be strong under any conceivable government.
At the same time, that Syrian government will be weaker than it was. The United States is in temporary or permanent eclipse and cannot possibly – and will not – exercise major leverage on Syria. You can bet that without a utopian transformation of the region, Israel will remain in the Golan.
It seems equally clear that Hizballah support from the Lebanese, Syria, Sunni Islamist leaders, and others has been very much reduced. Given this situation, Hizballah cannot attack Israel, certainly not while its best troops are tied down in Syria.
And if the rebels win in Syria, they will then take on Hizballah, while also supporting Lebanese Sunni Islamists. Hizballah will be too busy fighting against fellow Arabs to start a war with Israel.
This is the best moment for Kurds politically in modern history: they have a ceasefire with Turkey and its help in Syria; a de facto state in northern Iraq, though it will not be a full-fledged state; and autonomy in Syria. Central and southern Iraq are booming with terrorism, but Kurdistan (the Kurdish Regional Government) is booming with prosperity.
The fact is that the Kurds do not share in the Arab blood feud with Israel. In both Iraq and Syria, the Kurds want good relations and commerce with Israel. Whether the dealings would be overt or covert, this new political relationship is going to be a significant factor in the Middle East.
The Druze have a tougher time since they do not have a strategic boundary with a friendly country, as do the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Druze are at a historical turning point. They have given their loyalty to the Syrian regime, with the Golani Druze showing special devotion fueled largely by fear that some day the Golan would be returned to Syria.
Now, however, they see the Assad regime in trouble. At this point their loyalty must be questioned. Would a Sunni Islamist regime be so kind to them? On the one hand, the Druze have served not with the rebels, but with the regime. Second, when all is said and done the Druze are infidels, and even worse, apostates, as they were Muslims centuries ago. Of course, the Druze still in Syria will claim their devotion to the Sunni Islamist regime in the hope of not being massacred.
Druze from the Golan have asked Israeli authorities about bringing in refugees from Syria. Might persecuted Druze take Israeli citizenship and take the step of joining their fate as individuals or collectively with Israel, as their cousins across the border did in 1948?
Obviously, if the regime loses in Syria that will weaken Iran. But there’s something more here – if Iran loses the civil war, they lose any chance of Tehran bidding for Arab hegemony, which would be futile because the split between Sunni and Shia is so bloody and passionate.
Of course, if Iran wins the bitterness has the same effect. The dominant conflict in the region is now the Sunni-Shia one.
With Middle East hegemony out of Iran’s reach, Iran has less reason to threaten Israel or to consider using nuclear weapons against it. Why would Tehran do so when it will not impress the Arabs anyway, and while Tehran is in the middle of an all-out battle with the Sunni Arabs?
While Israel only has about a two percent Christian minority (about 150,000 people), there seems to be some change. A priest and a young woman have spoken for support despite harassment, and an Arab Christian party is forming. These will probably not catch on with large numbers of people, but with the conflict against Israel being joined by the conflict against Christian Arabs – including real intimidation of Christians on the West Bank by Muslims – this must have some effect.
This has been added to by a war on Christians in Egypt (Copts will be big targets in the coming Islamist insurgency, and the new government won’t provide much protection), Syria, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip. Where else do Christians have a safe haven in he region besides Israel?
Finally, Syria has done something momentous in regional terms. It has broken the myth of the “Israel card,” or of “linkage,” the idea that the “Arab-Israeli conflict” (perhaps we should start putting it in quotation marks) is the prime problem, passionate priority, and always the key to solving the Middle East.You can’t still argue that an Arab ruler can make political capital by blaming Israel, or that solving the Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian conflict will fix everything in the region.
Given the peculiarities of Western diplomacy, this doesn’t seem to put too much of a dent in “linkage” – lots of people in the West believe this idea. Surely it must be fewer, though still too widespread due to misinformation, diplomatic interests, and misunderstanding of the Middle East.