While Israel has largely abstained from direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, it has a vested interest in the conflict’s outcome. The continued conflict has not only killed tens of thousands of Syrian civilians every year, but also allowed for the rise of dangerous armed groups to Israel’s north, including the Iran-led axis, which consists of Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Shia militias. It has also caused worrying global trends: mass displacement; tensions within the EU, due to increasing refugees; and the proliferation of terrorist groups. Ending the conflict could reverse those trends and stop the bloodshed.
Israel should support a resolution to the conflict that reflects both its humanitarian concerns and national security interests, ending the carnage and limiting the threat posed by the Iran-led axis. Israel must ensure that any agreements on the future of Syria take its red lines into account. Israel’s red lines in Syria include the production or transfer of advanced weaponry for use by Hezbollah, pro-Iranian or Hezbollah forces opening a front against Israel in the Golan Heights or coming within forty kilometers of the Syrian-Israeli border, and the establishment of a corridor that stretches from Iran to the Mediterranean. To ensure that any resolution of the conflict takes its national security concerns into account, Israel should combine credible military threats (and actions, if needed) with sophisticated diplomacy.
Israel’s Red Lines
First, Israel has demonstrated its willingness to deal with Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced arms on Syrian territory. Although Russia has assured Israel that the high-quality weapons it has sold to Syria and Iran will not fall into Hezbollah’s hands, when this promise proved unreliable, Israel acted. According to former Israeli Air Force (IAF) chief Major General Amir Eshel, the IAF has attacked about one hundred Hezbollah targets in Syria since 2012, with the stated aim of preventing weapons that could harm Israel, like Yakhont anti-ship missiles and Kornet surface-to-air missiles, from reaching the terrorist group. In early September 2017, according to the Syrian army, Israel expanded its operations in Syria to include targeting not only convoys but allegedly even a weapons production facility, in Masyaf, which produced precision long-range missiles for Hezbollah.
Second, in seeking to push Iran-backed forces, such as the IRGC and Hezbollah, forty kilometers from its border, Israel aims to prevent the Iran-led axis from opening a second front against it. Hezbollah’s foothold in Lebanon is now the greatest immediate threat to Israel’s national security, and if Iran-backed forces opened up a parallel front in Syria, it would be a major setback. After Jordan, Russia, and the United States reached a cease-fire agreement for southern Syria, Israel cautiously supported it, but threatened to undermine it once it became apparent that the Iran-led axis would be allowed to dig in within ten to twenty kilometers of the Israeli border. In August 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to lobby the Trump administration on the agreement, while Netanyahu himself met with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi to discuss the matter. After those diplomatic efforts failed, Israel reportedly struck the weapons production facility in Masyaf, at least in part to demonstrate its willingness to adopt a more proactive approach to protect its interests. The message was clear: Israel does not have a military presence in Syria, but it can still be a spoiler as Russia tries to consolidate its military and political achievements. The alleged strike may have had its desired effect: days later, Russia and Jordan reached an agreement on southern Syria that has kept Iran-backed forces at least forty kilometers from Israel’s border.
Third, preventing Iran from gaining a land corridor to the Mediterranean may be the most difficult of the three red lines to enforce, but it would also be the least worrisome of the three. A land bridge to the Levant would provide Iran a route to advance its weapons and influence into the heart of the Arab Middle East, but Iran has already managed to do that in recent years. Nevertheless, Israel should prevent Iran from achieving this strategic asset, which would further entrench Tehran's influence in the Levant.
Opportunities and Dangers Inherent in De-Escalation Zones in Syria
The current efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, led by Russia, have yielded mixed results for Israel.
De-escalation zones, the major mechanism established for shaping the future of Syria, is being enforced by countries that accept (or at least do not actively oppose) the regime of President Bashar al-Assad: Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Iranian and Russian forces do not only support Assad but have participated in some of his regime's most horrific war crimes, such as the conquest of Aleppo in 2016. While Turkey once sought to overthrow the Assad regime, it has prioritized fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and would prefer that the Assad regime reasserts control over all Syrian territory rather than face its fragmentation, which could lead to greater Kurdish autonomy or even independence. Because Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara will determine the future of Syria, Assad’s continued reign is all but a fait accompli; from the Israeli perspective this is dangerous, because Iran poses the greatest threat to Israel’s national security and Assad is, as CIA Director Mike Pompeo put it recently, Tehran’s “puppet.”
Further, Israel is concerned that Iran is exploiting the de-escalation zones in two ways. First, the de-escalation mechanism not only fails to remove Iranian or Hezbollah forces from Syria but enshrines Iran’s influence and military presence in the country. In Idlib, Iran is obligatedto deploy its forces to Syria to ensure that all sides abide by their commitments. Second, the Iran-led axis is taking advantage of the reduction in violence in specific areas to consolidate its recent gains and push eastward toward the Iraqi border, which will bring it closer to establishing a land bridge.
On the other hand, the de-escalation zones have reduced fighting and alleviated human suffering. In addition, they could serve as a possible first step toward decentralization, which would be advantageous to Israel because it would weaken the power of an Iranian ally. The establishment of more autonomous areas governed by bodies that reflect the Sunni majority in those areas could also limit Iran's ability to maintain a presence or influence within certain regions. To capitalize on the opportunities presented by the de-escalation mechanism while minimizing the risks associated with it, Israel should adopt a more proactive approach.
Israel must ensure that its interests are taken into account by those determining the future of Syria. Above all, Israel must demonstrate its continued resolve to enforce its red lines, including its readiness to resort to force. Moscow has tried to avoid becoming entangled in the Israeli-Iranian rivalry; by launching additional precision strikes against Iranian activities that violate its red lines in Syria, Israel can convey to Russia that Iran is recklessly endangering its interests. This could motivate Russia to rein in Iran’s activities and even increase tensions between Moscow and Tehran as the divergence of their interests with respect to Israeli security come to the fore. At the same time, Israel should be careful to strike a delicate balance, demonstrating its determination to enforce its red lines without jeopardizing its working relationship, including de-confliction, with Russia. Likewise, when it comes to targeting aggressive Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Syria, Israel ought to simultaneously enforce its red lines with rigor and prevent uncontrolled escalation.
Second, Israel should continue to support the civilian population and non-jihadi rebel groups along its border. In doing so, Israel will prevent the humanitarian disaster from worsening as the regime attempts to encircle rebel-held areas, cut off supply lines, and force those areas into submission. Israeli support for these groups will provide it with a friendly (or at least non-hostile) buffer against Iran-led advances. This measure could prove valuable if Russia’s guarantee to distance Iran-backed groups from the Israeli border is not upheld.
Third, Israel should seek to obstruct Iran's pathway to the Mediterranean by lobbying its partners in Washington and the Arab Gulf states to build closer ties with Baghdad (perhaps even a U.S. military commitment) in order to pull Iraq out of the Iranian orbit. The recent thawing of ties between the Iraqi government and Arab Gulf States could be an auspicious first step toward pulling Baghdad away from Iran, or at least toward more balanced policy, which could be a roadblock in Iran’s path to the sea. Israel should also support others along the potential corridor who oppose Iranian domination, such as the Syrian Kurds and moderate Sunni opposition.
Finally, Israel should take a principled stand against the Assad regime on humanitarian grounds. Despite brutal actions that likely constitute war crimes, Assad has largely rehabilitated his international reputation, casting himself as the solution to the so-called Islamic State rather than its cause. Removing him from power and trying him for the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons under his command may not be quickly realized, but holding him accountable for atrocities should remain an aim of those who believe in justice and rule of law.