Israel prepares for Assad’s return to the border

Israeli security experts claim that the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Golan Heights is not necessarily bad news for Israel.

al-monitor Israeli soldiers look at Syria from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights border, July 7, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

qasem soleimani, hassan rouhani, bashar al-assad, iranian-israeli conflict, hezbollah in syria, hezbollah-israel conflict, syrian civil war, golan heights

Jul 9, 2018

Israel is waiting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s return. True, the internal Israeli debate about whether Israel should or shouldn’t have tried to finish off Assad’s rule in the course of the harsh years of civil war, when Assad’s forces were weak, still reigns. However, with regard to the immediate future, no one doubts that Assad is returning, big time. Very soon (the Israel Defense Forces’ assessment: within a number of weeks), the Syrian army will retake most of the border areas on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

As of this moment, while Israel is not sure if this is really good news, at least it is not bad news either. More and more voices in the security system are saying that Assad even heralds a form of hope for the return of the old order and some kind of stability, along the lines of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.”

Longtime Israeli leader Shimon Peres often used the pithy phrase “You can make an omelet from eggs, but you can’t make eggs from an omelet.” Until only a few months ago, the "Syrian omelet" looked hopeless and it appeared that any attempts at reshaping Syria and establishing a new order would be fruitless. Now the Israeli security system is starting to internalize the idea that a Syrian egg — or new order — will soon be reborn out of the bloody omelet of the last seven years.

“Our dilemmas in southern Syria are not that complicated,” a very high-level Israeli officer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “At the end of the day, it’s good to have an organized regime as our address in Syria. That was the way it was throughout more than 40 years vis-a-vis the Assad family regime, and we are ready to sign onto another 40 such years. The question is, what will Assad choose? If he will be a partner to renewing all the existing agreements, we’re in favor. But if, at the very same time, he’ll try to inject new external agents into the equation, such as Iran and Hezbollah, then he’ll find himself facing all the firepower and determination that Israel can muster. We won’t let this happen. Syria will not become another Lebanon, Hezbollah won’t be replicated and Iran will not establish long-range rocket launchers on Syrian territory.”

This article was written the morning after another exhausting night, during which the Syrian media reported a powerful assault on the Syrian T4 air base July 9. This base had been attacked several times in the past, in assaults attributed to Israel. Although Israel did not take responsibility for the attack, everyone in the region believes this assault was again designed to prevent and thwart Iranian real-time efforts to entrench itself as a permanent presence in Syria, to bring missiles and rockets there and establish bases and infrastructure.

“With regards to the Golan Heights front, the situation is simple,” the high-ranking officer explained. “We have the 1974 Separation of Forces agreement with Syria, and we will make sure it is implemented to the last comma. This includes geographical strips to delimit Syria’s order of battle and includes enforcement of the obligation not to introduce army forces into the buffer zone. Any Syrian military force that enters this area will be destroyed immediately.”

The officer acknowledged that while in the framework of humanitarian aid, Israel has created in recent years a rather close relationship with the Syrian villages on the other side of the border, “We never obligated ourselves to assist or ensure the welfare of anyone [on the Syrian side], and we succeeded in isolating Israel from this war.” The problem, he said, is the overall picture of the sector.

“We consider the general, regional, global picture,” the officer said. “We are determined, but aware that the other side [Iran] is determined, as well.” Another security source, who is involved in the contacts Israel conducts with Russia, the United States and Europe, is not surprised by the Iranian grit and resolve. “The other side is also determined, that’s clear to us,” he told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The Iranians are smart and sophisticated. They are now coping with a series of difficult problems starting from internal protests and agitation to the [harsh] economic situation and the renewed sanctions. This challenges the regime, but the regime knows how to adapt and adjust itself. It has no intentions of letting go.”

This resolve, according to the source, derives its inner power from the religious commandments and built-in fanaticism of the revolutionary Iranian regime. The officer emphasized, “We are not talking about a train that can brake all at once. Here we have a fight between determined people on both sides. We hope that our fortitude will prevail. Iran is active throughout the entire region, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It’s a powerful game, it’s a religious struggle. Israel’s interest is to distance Iran not only from Syria, but also from Yemen and Iraq and other places, too. Long-range missiles can be launched from lots of places, not just from southern Syria.”

Intelligence assessments in Israel indicate that the ratcheting up of international pressure and sanctions indeed has had a dramatic, negative effect on the Iranian economy. However, in the country’s internal schism between the pragmatic camp (headed by President Hassan Rouhani) and the extremists (headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani), the extremist camp actually has the lead. “External threats always lead to internal consolidation and radicalization,” a senior Israeli security source said on condition of anonymity. “That doesn’t surprise us. The question is, how much longer can they endure under the current pace?”

Meanwhile, Israel is keeping its eyes on the Vladimir Putin-Donald Trump presidential summit scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki. Israel is hoping that the meeting will yield “understandings” by the two powers that will torpedo Iranian consolidation on Syrian soil. On the other hand, no one in the Israeli political or security systems harbors unnecessary illusions. “Ultimately, no one will volunteer to get the Iranians out of here, in our stead,” a senior Israeli military figure told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “At the end of the day, Israel is the only force in the area that got up and directly told the Iranians, 'Enough is enough,' when everyone else cheers us on from the gallery. We are living through fateful days. What will take place in the next few months will impact on our lives for the next 10, 20, 50 years. It will determine whether our children and grandchildren will have to fight in the Golan Heights and Syria, or not. This is a period in which new rules of the game will be formulated. And this time, as opposed to what happened with Hezbollah [in Lebanon], we have no intentions of letting others dictate our fate.”

I asked the officer how much Israel would be willing to sacrifice in order to prevent Iran from taking up permanent residence in Syria. “As much as we need,” he said. “When Iran was called on to help the Syrian regime in its civil war, there was some amount of legitimacy in the request. But when Iran tries to establish itself in Syria against us, that is casus belli [act that justifies war]. Iran has to understand that just as it knows how to operate in the entire Middle East, Israel does, too. It is a mirror view. If we want to, we know how to operate even against Iran. No one buys F-35 stealth fighter jets to patrol the Lebanese borders. If Iran operates against us and our sovereignty, it has to understand that we also know how to act against it.”

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