by Udi Dekel, Carmit Valensi
Israel has preferred “the devil it knows” – Bashar al-Assad, who opened the door to Iran – over the chance to change the reality in Syria. Now, however, is the time for a paradigm shift in Israel’s approach – to stop sitting on the sidelines, recognize that Syria will remain divided, and work intensively to obstruct efforts by Iran and its proxies to consolidate their power in the northern arena over time
a decade of civil war in Syria, it is clear that Syria as it was in
1963-2011 has ceased to exist. The civil rebellion, which was cruelly
suppressed by a dictatorial regime with military and diplomatic backing
from Russia and Iran, left Syria divided into spheres of influence and
control with support from foreign countries. This reality renders the
slogan "preserving the unity and integrity of the Syrian state," sounded
frequently by Syrian officials and some Western countries, utterly
meaningless. It appears that for the foreseeable future, Syria will
remain a split and dismembered theater.
Map of Control: Syria is divided de facto into a number of enclaves. Bashar al-Assad, with military aid from Russian and Iran and its proxies, ostensibly controls two thirds of the country, mainly the backbone connecting the major cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, and to a lesser extent, the south. The Idlib area in northwestern Syria is an enclave of rebels under Turkish auspices. Along the Syrian-Turkish border are territories under Turkish control. Most of northeastern Syria, which contains a majority of the country's natural resources, is under Kurdish control, with US backing. Islamic State (ISIS) cells are active in central and eastern Syria. Control over the borders of Syria is also an indication of "hollow sovereignty": (1) The Syrian army, which is subject to the Assad regime, controls approximately 15 percent of the country's international land borders; (2) The Syrian-Lebanese border is under the control of Hezbollah; (3) The Iraqi-Syrian border is controlled on both sides by Shiite militias that are Iranian proxies; (4) The Syrian-Turkish border is controlled by elements that do not include the Assad regime and its patron, Iran.
Over 500,000 people lost their lives during the ten years of war (at a
certain stage, UN agencies stopped counting the victims). Approximately
12 million people lost their homes and are now displaced persons or
refugees, and 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Assad controls 12 million of Syria's estimated population of 17
million, the country is on the verge of a hunger crisis, and the
shortage of basic goods, especially bread and fuel, is increasing. It is
estimated that 11 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian
Infrastructure: More than a third of the state's infrastructure has been destroyed or severely damaged. In their war against the armed opposition, both the regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, attacked urban centers, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, as part of a strategy of destruction to eliminate areas held by the rebels. The cost of reconstruction in Syria is estimated at $250-350 billion, and at this stage, there is no party capable of financing such reconstruction, or willing to do so.
Regional and International Status:
The Assad regime is boycotted by the West. The Biden administration is
apparently continuing the tough American policy toward Assad, including
sanctions against him and his close associates. The administration does
not recognize Assad as a legitimate ruler; the results of the
presidential elections scheduled for April-May will likewise be
discounted as long as no political reforms or signs of stabilization and
reconstruction of Syria according to the UN roadmap – Security Council
Resolution 2254 – are on the horizon. Assad has few friends in the
Middle East, although a number of countries have ostensibly normalized
their relations with him, such as Oman, Bahrain, and United Arab
Emirates, while Egypt and Jordan have accepted Assad's continued rule
and recently called for easing the sanctions on the Syrian people. Syria
has nevertheless been left outside the Arab League. Russia, which
recognizes that governmental and economic reforms in Syria are necessary
in order for the regime to attain recognition as a legitimate
sovereign, has had no success in promoting a political settlement. For
Russia, putting an end to Assad's government would exact a heavy
political cost, because it sees no stable player capable of replacing
him. Against this background, Moscow is trying to market Assad's
murderous regime to the international community as a legitimate
"The Devil We Know": Why Must this Stance Change?
Russia began its involvement in the war in Syria in late 2015, Israel
has accepted the Assad regime's continued rule, in line with its
preference for "the devil we know." Other than an ongoing effort to
disrupt the construction of the Iranian "war machine" on Syrian
territory, Israel has elected to sit on the fence and avoid taking part
in the struggle between the rival Syrian groups. The current situation,
however, requires a reassessment of Israeli policy, and especially
realization that a policy of non-intervention is no longer valid, for
the following reasons:
First, Bashar al-Assed has given Iran an opportunity to expand and consolidate its influence in Syria on various levels for the long term, thereby posing a very significant security challenge to Israel on its northern border. Tehran supported Assad mainly through Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, and combat militias recruited among the Shiite population in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the past two years, Iran has focused on the recruitment of Syrian fighters and their integration in local defense militias, which it trains and arms; Iran is deepening its influence in the Syrian army by training senior commanders and aiding in force buildup. Hezbollah controls the Syrian-Lebanese border and is establishing terrorist cells in the Golan Heights, and Iran is preparing bases in northern Syria for the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, which facilitate emergency rapid deployment of forces and launching facilities for missiles, rockets, and drones aimed at Israel. Israeli air attacks are not preventing growing Iranian consolidation and influence in Syria; they are merely disrupting the Iranian plans slightly for building an offensive front against Israel in Syrian territory. As long as Assad is in power, this security challenge facing Israel will only continue to mount.
Second, no political solution to the crisis in Syria can be expected as long as Assad remains in power. A large portion of the Syrian population does not regard him as a legitimate ruler. Signs of protest are already visible, even in the Alawite community, which is also suffering shortages and hunger. Assad's retention of power will therefore ensure more years of instability and worsen the conditions that led to the outbreak of war in the first place. Assad's stubborn opposition to governmental reforms and political concessions is an obstacle to any effort to achieve progress toward a settlement with UN mediation or led by Russia. Even though the United States is refraining from an explicit call for regime change, its demands indicate that this is its objective. The Biden administration is continuing the line advocated by the Trump administration by blocking any economic aid for Syrian reconstruction in the absence of political concessions and a return to the UN roadmap. Furthermore, retention of power by Assad guarantees that most of the refugees will not return to Syria, because they fear arrest or forcible conscription into the regime's armed forces. They are also afraid to return to a country in which their property was stolen, and where the economy is in ruins and there are no prospects of employment.
where the Assad regime is involved, the argument that there is a
responsible actor at the helm with whom rules of the game can be
established has lost its value. Assad does not even exercise effective
control of the territories over which he regained military control.
Southern Syria is a significant test case. When the regime's forces
regained control of the area in the summer of 2018, chaos prevailed
there, with a mixed multitude of armed factions fighting each other and
the regime unable to restrain them. These include opposition groups,
militias under Iranian or Russian influence, and local groups enjoying a
certain degree of autonomy from the central government.
beyond the strategic assessments of the situation, the moral aspect
should be considered by decision makers in Israel and the international
community. Recognition of the legitimacy of a leader who has perpetrated
war crimes for years and continues to abuse civilians – some of these
cases were revealed to the world only recently – is nothing less than a
disgrace and a moral stain on those seeking to accept him into the
regional and international order.
of Israel's assumptions have been disproved: one, that attacks will
prevent Iranian military consolidation in Syria; two, that Russia will
assist in the effort to drive Iranian proxies out of Syria and reduce
Tehran's influence in the country; three, that a central government in a
united country, even under Assad's leadership, is preferable to a
division of authority. It is best for Israel to realize that Syria will
remain divided, and that as long as Assad remains in power, Iran and its
proxies cannot be driven out of the country. Israel should therefore
encourage a broad-based initiative to remove Assad from power in return
for an international effort at reconstruction in Syria with
participation by the Arab Gulf states.
Until Syria is reshaped, Israel should take risks in the short term in order to prevent Iran and its proxies from taking over Syria. Israel should step up its activity in three strategic spheres of critical importance:
In southern Syria:
In order to prevent Iran from using its proxies to create a terrorist
and high-friction border in the Golan Heights, Israel should exploit the
Assad regime's weakness and the competition for influence between Iran
and Russia as an opportunity to adopt a proactive policy in the area.
Coordinating activity with Moscow, Israel should attack the Iranian
proxies, including Hezbollah forces, while strengthening both Sunni and
Druze local forces. Ties can be formed with local population groups
opposed to the regime, while granting them humanitarian aid – food,
fuel, and health services – that will help generate "islands of Israeli
influence," thereby thwarting the Iranian plan to consolidate its
presence in the area.
In northeastern Syria:
With an emphasis on the Iraqi-Syrian border, Israel should prepare for a
potential withdrawal of United States forces. Iran is preparing to
exploit the resulting vacuum to take over the area in order to establish
a land bridge from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. It is recommended that
Israel develop low-profile cooperation channels with the Kurdish forces
and provide them with military and economic aid, while at the same time
build a platform for ongoing operational activity in the theater in
order to prevent an Iranian takeover of this strategic area, which is
rich in energy and agricultural resources.
The Syrian-Lebanese border: The mutual deterrence between Hezbollah and Israel resulting from concern about escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese border has expanded to Syrian territory in the area around the Syrian-Lebanese border. This area, which is controlled by Hezbollah, enables the organization, with Iranian assistance, to transfer arms to Lebanon, maintain a smuggling industry of critical importance to the organization, and deploy weapons for use against Israel when the time comes. Hezbollah's control of the wide-open border between Syria and Lebanon, a reflection of Israel's strategic weakness, enabled the organization to build up its forces following the Second Lebanon War (in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701). It functions as Hezbollah's lever for exerting political, military, economic, and social influence in Syria. It is recommended that Israel step up its operational activity in the area in the framework of the “campaign between wars,” while at the same time encourage international involvement to obstruct the border between Syria and Lebanon, based on the assessment that this measure is essential for both reconstruction in Lebanon and any weakening of the radical groups in the entire region.
Udi Dekel, Carmit Valensi