Israel and the Syrian crisis

 By Laura Rufalco, trainee, GREMMO

The past decades the Western World, notably the United States, put forward the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy priority. Yet, for many years, the U.S. and Europe tolerated and even supported dictatorship in the Arab world, using the fear of an Islamist rise in the region as a justification for their double standards. With the so called “Arab Spring” that have shaken the Middle East, we indeed witnessed the rise of Islamist groups, mostly by the means of organized elections, as it was the case in Egypt and Tunisia. This put the Western world in an odd position: even if their mea culpa for supporting dictatorship in the region never happened, as demonstrations went on those countries quickly started to put forward a positioning of supporting the Arab people asking for changes. The U.S. and Europe turned their back to the dictators they supported before, affirming their respect to the right of self-determination of peoples. However, this also meant accepting that in some countries the elections would put Islamists into power.

In Syria, a country where the demonstrations were brutally repressed by the regime, the situation quickly degenerated into a civil war, with the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar giving financial and military support to rebel groups. As Turkey and the U.S. believed that the Syrian regime was about to collapse, they continued to show support to the rebel movements. But the regime didn’t collapse: with Iranian and Russian back-up, it was able to regain ground militarily and even politically, by advancing propaganda of defending the country against dangerous hard-line Islamists groups. This argument turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, trapping the Western World diplomacy in the conflict: if in the beginning the U.S., Europe and Turkey were urging Assad to leave power, now they are afraid of who would takeover if he actually did. The attack of ISIS in northern Iraq only proved that the danger of hard-line extremist Islamists groups is real.

As the future of the region became darker, other countries found themselves uncertain of what to do or expect. Israel is another country that is deeply divided concerning Syria. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the country expected its biggest ally, the U.S., to have a more active posture in order to oust Assad. For more than four decades, Israel considered Syria as an important security threat. Defeating Assad would diminish the Syrian threat and, moreover, weaken the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, two other sworn-enemies of Israel. However, as the Syrian opposition become more fragmented, with new actors engaging in the conflict, the situation grown to be more complex to Israel as well. For once, Hezbollah continued to represent a major threat to Israel: even if they were more concerned about Syria than Israel for the moment, they were gaining more war experience that could be used in the future against Israel. If taking Assad out of the picture would be a great blow to Hezbollah, a defeated Assad could leave way to other groups more hostile to Israel.

As the ISIS gain power in northern Iraq, Israel sees that the hard-line Islamist threat has become concrete. The country fears that the al-Qaeda linked group, for many considered as a yet more extremist group than al-Qaeda itself, could decide to target Israel once it achieve more power. Israel, as the United States or Turkey, does not welcome the idea of Assad staying into power, but they are yet more afraid of hard-line Islamist groups. But as a country neighboring the war, the situation is much more dangerous to Israel than to other countries involved in the conflict. Divided between “the devil they now” and the Islamist threat, so far Israel  do not have a clear strategy on how to address the Syrian conflict. The country is known for targeting arms transfers either to Hezbollah or to al-Qaeda. They are also creating a buffer zone to secure the border and the Golan Heights. As the conflict lingers and surpass the Syrian border, the threat to Israel became more important, pushing the country to find a more concrete positioning towards the conflict. Nevertheless, in the midst of all this chaos and security threat, Israel was able to take an advantage of the Syrian civil war, as it took the spot light out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, replacing it as the center of attention in the Middle East and giving yet more room to Israel to act towards Palestinians as they want without having to be concerned with International pressure.

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