Ten experts at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies debate the implications of the Syrian civil war. They say: Israel should stay out of the conflict, but prepare for continued instability as Syria breaks up. A 2,500-word Jerusalem Post Magazine story written by me, published today.
Perhaps more than 50,000 Syrians have been killed in the almost two-year-long civil war raging just across Israel’s northern border, with no end in sight. The conflict threatens to spill over into neighboring countries. In this roundtable discussion, 10 experts at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies analyze the likely scenarios and their implications for Israel and the West. The bottom line: Israel should stay out of the conflict, but prepare for continued instability as Syria breaks up.
For how long can this conflict persist?
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum: This is most likely to be a long, protracted war, as long as the Russians and Iranians keep supplying Syrian President Bashar Assad. He is the only Russian ally left in the Middle East, and the Mediterranean port of Tartus is important to Moscow. Don’t expect Moscow to support sanctions against Assad. Iran sees Syria as key to the Shi’ite anti-Sunni axis involving Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq. They will not give up easily on Assad, either. As the conflict persists, it is possible that a Cold War-style proxy war could develop, with the West supporting an amalgam of opposition forces, and the Russians and Iranians supporting Assad.
Can Assad and his Alawite power base win out and reassert control over the country?
Dr. Max Singer: It could be years before an outcome is determined in Syria. Nevertheless, an Alawite victory, with or without Assad, is possible because Iran is giving unlimited help to the Syrian government’s struggle to suppress the revolt. The minorities and the business community may be so afraid of a Sunni government led by Muslim Brotherhood figures and Salafis that they deprive the Sunnis of the support they need to defeat the government.
While it is uncomfortable to be in any way supportive of a regime as nasty as Assad’s, it doesn’t seem likely that a Sunni regime would kill any fewer Syrians than Assad is capable of. All the minorities are afraid of the Sunnis, and with good cause.
Prof. Efraim Inbar: Assad will not run out of ammunition, due to Russian and Iranian military assistance. And in contrast to the Egyptian army, Syrian mili-tary formations are not reluctant to shoot at civilians.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar: Iran could yet send real troops to Syria to support Assad, passing through Iraq with official invitation of the Syrian regime and Iraqi consent, something like the Saudi invasion to Bahrain. This could change the entire regional picture, since Iranian troops might stay in Syria forever, and be “invited” by the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government to extend their presence into Lebanon, too.
Prof. Hillel Frisch: I very much doubt that Iran is going to move an army into Syria. The Iranians don’t have all that many troops, and if they did move, this would undoubtedly draw in NATO opposition.
What is the likelihood that a stable Sunni-led government could emerge from the conflict?
Prof. Shmuel Sandler: A Sunni-led federal solution will not hold in Syria. For such a shared-rule solution, what is needed is a federal political culture – which does not exist in the Arab Middle East. Lebanon tried this and failed.
Singer: During the early stages of the revolt against Assad, perhaps it would have been possible for the US and others to have assisted in transition toward a non-Alawite regime capable of resisting Muslim Brotherhood control and positively inclined toward accommodation among the minorities (instead of slaughtering and oppressing them). But the fighting has gone on for too long, and Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi elements of the opposition have grown too strong and prominent. So I no longer see the possibility of a stable and moderate Sunni-led government emerging from the conflict. There is no Great Power to enforce the terms of a compromise powersharing arrangement between the Sunnis and the minorities.
Frisch: There is slight chance that the professional Syrian army could take control of things, with the aid of both the Sunni and Alawite communities and the bureaucratic officialdom to negotiate the preservation of the state. This, if only to salvage pension plans, savings, statedirected commerce and so on. But this possibility recedes with the passage of time.
And the alternative to a stable Sunni led government is what, anarchy?
Sandler: The first and increasingly most likely possibility is the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. Iran and Turkey would vie for influence and control over this state. The other possibility is that Syria disintegrates into several states or several warring fiefdoms. The de facto partition of Syria into several states is quite threatening to other Middle Eastern countries. I don’t see how the other Arab states could countenance this. This would also be a threat to Turkey.
Kedar: It is clear to me that the most likely outcome of the civil war in Syria is the total collapse of all government and economic systems, and the emergence of hundreds of militias, including radical Islamic ones – meaning anarchy for years.
Over the longer term, I see the emergence of Kurdish, Alawite and Druse districts, with fairly stable self-governance, perhaps even independent statehood. This may be the most stable and preferred outcome.
Frisch: I disagree. States don’t disintegrate that quickly. Lebanon, for example, hasn’t really functioned as a unitary state for more than 15 years, yet it still exists as a country. I think that Syria will hold together in fragmented fashion, like Iraq does today. The Sunnis will be constantly challenged by the Kurds and Alawites, but the state will remain as one entity.
Singer: A de facto or formal division of the country – presumably among Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Druse and possibly Christian areas – may seem like a reasonable way to resolve the deadly antagonisms between the groups. But my impression is that is impractical because the populations are too intermixed geographically.
Also, I don’t see the dominant power, whether it be Alawite or Sunni, willing to accept autonomous minority areas.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa: The opposition to Assad remains highly divided. This means that, like Libya today, Syria will continue to suffer from frequent periods of violence and instability. Enormous resources will be needed to rebuild and reconstruct Syria, but there won’t be one guiding power to direct or elicit such assistance.
This will provide many opportunities for external close powers such as Turkey and Iran, and others such as the West and China, to intervene in the shaping of the new regime or regimes.
What are the implications for Israel and the region of this continuing instability?
Inbar: First of all, we can admit that Israel doesn’t mind the fact that its adversaries are bleeding themselves a bit. We have no love lost for Assad. Furthermore, the conflict is exacerbating the Sunni- Shi’ite divide, and bringing Iran and Turkey into conflict, too. An outcome that reduces Russian and Iranian influence in Syria would be welcome, as well.
Secondly we should recognize that many national security issues in the eastern Mediterranean will be affected by the outcome in Syria, including the character of Cyprus, an island of great strategic importance. The eastern Mediterranean also holds enormous gas deposits that if properly developed can help Europe become less dependent on Russia and Turkey. The crisis in Syria is but a sideshow compared to the crisis over Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
Teitelbaum: Obviously the best result for both Israel and the West, regardless of who emerges on top, is a new regime that is concerned with internal development and that does not support Iran and Hezbollah. An independent Kurdistan, involving Kurds in Iran, Syria, Iraq and hopefully Turkey, would be a good development for Israel and the West as well.
Dr. Eitan Shamir: Let’s not forget that the Syrian army is slowly crumbling and disintegrating.
The Syrian Army was the last military on Israel’s borders that possessed full armored and infantry divisions, artillery and an air force. Assuming that Egypt and Jordan maintain their peace agreements with Israel, this means that Israel has no direct threat from a conventional military on its borders.
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold: Nevertheless, prolongation of the civil war and contraction of the regime’s control over Syria’s borders are likely to have negative implications regarding Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. Jihadists and other elements looking to trigger widespread violence will seek to attack Israel from that border. While these do not pose a serious threat to Israel per se, changes in the region in general mean that relatively minor conflagrations can far more easily escalate to major confrontations, dragging in other actors in the region. Thus, Israel will need to be more careful about its response than previously. The requirement of deterrence will need to be balanced against the need to prevent escalation.
Shamir: Indeed, we may see the Golan border turning into no-man’s-land, a safe haven for terror groups, similar to the current situation in Sinai. Or it could become a territory controlled by one hostile, strong organization, such as is the case in south Lebanon and Gaza. Either scenario means trouble for Israel.
Frisch: I see this as a low-risk possibility.
Syrian land beyond the Golan is sparsely populated, making it easy for Israel to monitor. And there are very few Israeli targets on the Golan itself. This is a manageable security environment.
Gilboa: Israel and the West are in a loselose situation. Assad’s survival would be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah. His weakness might help Iran to effectively take over the country and create a zone of influence which would include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A new regime might be dominated by extreme Islamic factions [that] would seek to destabilize the Syrian- Israeli border.
Singer: In retrospect, one thing is very clear: Israel was wise not to deliver the Golan to Syria. Indeed, the case for keeping the Golan may grow even stronger as events unfold. It is becoming apparent that Syria is not a real country. Since its establishment, Syria ruled the Golan for only 22 years, and it certainly is not entitled to receive it again now.
What will become of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stocks?
Dr. Dany Shoham: Israel has good reason to fear that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal could fall into the wrong hands – to terrorist elements within Syria, to an even more hostile Syrian regime, or to Hezbollah and Iran. If Assad sees his demise as inevitable, he could decide to unmask his ultimate weapons. While Iran has the greatest influence on Syria’s crisis management, it is not clear that Iranian leaders can control Assad, and anyway Iran is far from a pillar of stability in the eyes of the international community. The neutralization of Syria’s non-conventional weapons by an international force would be a blessing, but [at present] this seems a most unlikely scenario. Bombarding these arms stockpiles could result in significant environmental pollution.
Consequently Israel and the West hold limited options.
Singer: Neither the US nor Israel, probably the only countries with the ability to try to seize Syria’s chemical weapons, are likely to do this. Perhaps the only scenario that would protect against the diversion of Syrian chemical weapons (apart from an Assad victory in the civil war) is a situation in which the US made a deal with the government to give it enough support against the rebels to win, in return for removal of the chemical weapons from Syria. But this is truly unlikely.
So what can Israel do in the current situation?
Sandler: The First Lebanon War taught Israel that it does not have the power to engineer political structures in the Arab world.
Rynhold: Indeed, the only circumstances in which Israel should get involved directly is if the regime looks like it is losing control of its chemical weapons or handing them to over to radical elements.
Teitelbaum: Israel should limit its involvement to intelligence gathering and preventing any leakage of the conflict onto the Golan Heights. The US should identify liberal forces, if it can, and arm them. If it can’t, it should not arm anyone. A Western-imposed nofly zone would be good, if it could be done without escalating tensions with Russia.
Kedar: As long as the picture in Syria is unclear, the world – including Israel – should stay out of there. Nobody should be arming the radical Islamic groups in Syria. These people will never accept the existence of Israel, and ultimately will turn their Western-supplied weapons against the West, just as Osama bin Laden did.
Gilboa: Israel has to be prepared for new military challenges from Syria and Lebanon. But at this point, it should refrain from any intervention in words or actions. A long-term strategy might be to help the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq to fight for their independence.
Singer: There is not much that Israel can do to affect the outcome of the civil war in Syria. All it can do is prepare to physically protect itself from the results, and to use the lessons of the war to increase understanding of what Israel faces.
Inbar: While caution is needed, Israel also needs to establish deterrence by exacting a cost from those [who] shoot at Israeli targets on the Golan.
The writer, David M. Weinberg, is director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel-Diaspora Jewish relations, anti-Semitism, US and Canadian Mideast policy, and pro- and anti-Israel advocacy.
This article is excerpted from the center’s December 2012 News Bulletin: www.besacenter.org.
Prof. Hillel Frisch (PhD, Hebrew University) is an expert on Palestinian and Islamic politics, institutions and military strategies.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa (PhD, Harvard University) is an expert on American-Israeli relations, US policy in the Middle East, American and Israeli politics and public opinion.
Prof. Efraim Inbar (PhD, University of Chicago), director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a veteran authority on the Arab-Israeli conflict and strategic developments in the Mideast.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar (PhD, Bar-Ilan University) served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence specializing in Syria, Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and Israeli Arabs.
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold (PhD, London School of Economics) specializes in Israeli diplomacy, US-Israel relations, and Middle East-Far East relations.
Prof. Shmuel Sandler (PhD, Johns Hopkins University) is an expert on religion, party and electoral politics in Israel, US-Israel relations and Israeli foreign policy.
Dr. Eitan Shamir (PhD, Kings College) is head of the National Security Doctrine Department in the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham (PhD, Tel Aviv University), a former microbiologist and chemist in the Defense Ministry, specializes in chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East.
Dr. Max Singer (JD, Harvard) is co-founder of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, and an expert on US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning.
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum (PhD, Stanford University) specializes in Islamism, Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and pan-Arab issues.