Border clashes may make it hard for Israel to steer clear of Syria

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (with binoculars) tours the Israeli border with Syria on May 21. (Tal Manor/IDF Spokesperson/Flash 90/JTA)
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (with binoculars) tours the Israeli border with Syria on May 21.
(Tal Manor/IDF Spokesperson/Flash 90/JTA)

For much of the past two years, Israel has taken a singular approach to the Syrian civil war: Stay as far away as possible.

But with a recent string of victories by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and the crumbling of the U.N. peacekeeping force that has kept the peace along the border for four decades, the tack is becoming considerably harder.

Assad’s statement that he had decided to engage in military action against Israel, published Monday in an interview with a Lebanese paper, was followed by a terse warning from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Anyone who threatens to hit or hits Israel will be hit,” Netanyahu said.

The warning follows a tense conflict June 6 on Israel’s border, in which Assad’s forces recaptured the lone border crossing after it had briefly fallen into rebel hands. Heavy fighting saw Syrian tanks enter the demilitarized zone between the two countries and prompted Austria to withdraw its 300-soldier contingent from the U.N. force, shrinking it by one-third.

Israel threatened to strike the tanks, according to a leaked U.N. document, refraining only when Syria promised to fire solely on rebel troops.

“The crumbling of the U.N. force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security,”Netanyahu told his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Israel has assiduously sought to stay out of the Syrian morass, engaging only when its interests were directly threatened. Thrice Israel has attacked Syrian weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah — once in January and twice in May.

Before this week, however, Israel had not threatened to engage Syrian forces directly.

Still, the June 6 battle probably won’t change Israel’s basic approach to the 2-year-old conflict next door. The Syrian border has been largely calm since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel won’t enter the war “as long as fire is not being directed at us.”

That attitude plays well with ordinary Israelis, who clearly don’t want their country dragged into a neighboring conflict. An Israel Democracy Institute poll released Sunday showed that 86 percent of Israeli respondents want to stay out of Syria.

“Israel has an interest that the two sides will keep fighting, and not go in and decide who’s better for Israel,” said Syria expert Ely Karmon of the Interdisciplinary Center. “We need to wait and see who will control Syria.”

The question remains far from answered.

Recent Assad victories have raised the prospect that he could survive the war to control a northern enclave where his minority Alawite sect is concentrated. Should he survive, he could continue to funnel arms from Iran to Hezbollah. No one expects Assad will ever fully regain control of the whole country.

Assad’s survival might not be an entirely bad thing, according to Shlo­mo Brom, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Even a limited Assad regime, he said, would help prevent Syria from becoming a power vacuum in which jihadists could attack Israel. And it would give Israel “an address on the other side” with which to negotiate.

Assad’s survival also would be a victory for Hezbollah, which openly committed itself last month to fighting for Assad and drove his victory last week in Qusair, a key city between the Lebanese border and the rebel stronghold of Homs.

“It will be a victory for Iran, Hezbollah, the enemies of the West,” said Ephraim Inbar, director

of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center. “He helps Hezbollah to hurt Israel.”

But Hezbollah also could find itself hurt by Assad’s survival. The organization, which has long commanded respect in the region for fighting Israel, may find its reputation damaged by turning its guns against fellow Muslims.

Hezbollah, Brom said, has shown itself as “a foreign body in Lebanon that serves foreign interests.”