Is the war in Syria good for Israel

    It is almost coming up to 2 years of fighting in Syria in a battle that has seen over 60,000 deaths for both sides. The fighting has shown the ruthlessness in which the Assad regime is trying to hold back the rebels from taking the major cities. It should be shocking for anyone to see the photos of dead children, who are caught in this conflict over power. Recent signs have also shown that as time passes the fighting is intensifying and in contrast to any reports the end is not near.

    One of the reasons the end is not near is because of the support Assad is getting from  China and Russia in the UN Security Council as well as Russian support on the ground. In many ways the world has gone back to the cold war era, where the West is on one side and the East on the other.

    A theory that has come up in the blogsphere is that the fighting in Syria is serving Israel’s purpose and has all been orchestrated by the West to support Israel. It is, therefore, worth looking at the possible outcomes to determine whether this theory stands the reality test.

    Prior to the uprisings, Israel and Syria have been enemies, although they share a border that was very quiet for over many years. Syria has not been in direct conflict with Israel since 1973 and so while the border is always heavily watched, it isn’t active (apart from a single incident, in which Israel allegedly bombed the Syrian nuclear weapon plant in Sept 2007).

    Syria instead has been fighting Israel via Hezbollah. The Shia group, which was founded by Iran and has been promoting Iran’s interests and carrying out attacks against Israel. Hezbollah has also been a supporter of Syria and in return Syria has been passing shipments of weapons from Iran. To understand the extent of the alliance, one could look at the assassination of the Anti-Syrian prime-minister Hariri in 2005, which is believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah (currently investigated by the STL) as well as the current situation in which Hezbollah fighters are taking part in the fighting on behalf of the Syrian government.

    Another Symptom of this Iran-Heabollah-Syria alliance is the falling out of Hamas with Iran, after the Palestinian have taken the rebels’ side in the fighting (following brutal treatment of Palestinians in Syria by Assad’s army).  Iran has notably been supporting the smaller factions in Gaza, who are a threat to Hamas’ rule on the strip.

    While Shia Iran has been supporting Syria, some Sunni countries have been supporting the rebels. Most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who, to say the least, do not always see eye to eye with Iran on regional issues. Another player that is heavily involved is Turkey, which tried to adopt a friendly approach with all its neighbours, but has been forced to choose sides and since they share a border with Syria, had to take action to protect the stability of itself. Turkey is also watching carefully the developments in Syria, as a break up of the country could heavily impact its Kurdish situation, since there are Kurds in Syria, who might be driven to share power with their people across the border.

    While the support as a result of the Sunni-Shia conflict is what is fueling the fighting in Syria. The situation Syria is a lot more complicated than that and worth examining to truly understand the possible outcomes, before analyzing the possible winners and losers.

    As most of the Middle East, Syria is also consisted of different ethnic groups that occupied adjacent areas. In Syria the Kurds occupy Northen parts on the Turkish border, the Druze Occupy the South Eastern part, the Alawaites sit in the North Eastern part, above the Shias, who mainly occupy the Eastern part along the Lebanese border.  The cities Homs and Idlib are situated in the Alawate Shia district, but have large populations of Christians. The rest of the country and the clear majority are Sunni Muslims.

(For a map with the breakdown visit this URL–dPjAN1tk/s1600/Ethnic+Unrest+Syria+map.png)

    Just to give an idea of the make up of the population, 74% are Sunnis, but around 15% of them are Kurds, who are seeking their own independence, about 13% are Shia and Alawaite (allies but differ greatly) and 10% are Christian. The rest are Druze or other minorities. This demographic is baffling considering the ruling ethnic group has been he Alwaites, who are not a majority. Currently there seems to be a breakup in Syria, in which the Kurds are establishing their own rule. The Shia and Alawaites are holding on to their area in the East and the Sunnis are slowly removing the regimes control from the majority of the land. It is not unimaginable to assume that if a breakup would happen, the Druze would seek autonomy in their area, around Druze mountain (Jabal Al-Druze).

    Assuming a break up is where Syria is headed the immediate losers would be Iran and Hezbollah. Syria has been a footprint for Iran in the Middle East as well as a bridge to get weapons transferred to Lebanon. If the Alawaites are overthrown and a Sunni regime is put in place, it would not just stop the support, but no doubt settle the bill with the Shias that have been fighting them. Hezbollah which is already having a tough time fighting in Syria and trying to survive the pressures of the EU classifying it as a terrorist group (hence cutting its EU fundraising capabilities and movement) might not survive this tumble and may disintegrate to a small player or fractured groups.

    Russia would also be a loser of this situation, although not dramatically, but Syria has been a loyal arms customer and a gateway to the Middle East. Syria would probably find new ways to enter the Middle East and influence outcomes (i.e. Iraq, Iran…etc.).

    Whether Israel would win or lose from this conflict is still unknown. On the one hand, the Syrian army has disintegrated and even if not, Syria would not want to jump back into another war. So there would be no existential threat. However, if there is stability in Syria, it is not unimaginable that different Islamic factions would sit along the border and fire the odd shell at Israeli civilians, creating a second “Gaza-like” situation. Eventually, the situation would be similar to the old Lebanese border and it would take an intensive operation to quiet it down.  A more negative scenario is some Islamist groups get their hands on the chemical and biological weapons, although, Israel is surely monitoring the situation closely and has a plan to bomb the sites if that situation becomes a real risk.

    The only “achievement” Israel could gain from this conflict is the slowly shifting public opinion as a result of the contrast of the brutal fighting and civilian deaths in Syria as opposed to the situation in Gaza. Even Israel’s biggest haters, can’t truly compare the death toll or brutality used intentionally against civilians on both sides. In some ways, the Palestinian situation has been shoved to one side and back to its original size, which other Arab countries find little time for.

    If after Assad the Muslim Brotherhood would rise in Syria, it would spell bad news to moderate Sunni Muslims, secular and all other religions. It is very likely that despite the hardline policies, in a similar way to Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would realize that rebuilding a country takes cooperation and moderation externally, but would have a free hand to turn the country into a religious state internally, restricting liberties and treating women, gays and minorities exceptionally badly. In Egypt for example, it is Morsi’s regime  keeping Hamas from shooting rockets at Israel, while passing internally dictatorship-like laws. Similarly, the regime in Syria would eventually need to work to keep the border with Israel quiet again. However in the long run, the state would be headed down the road for a religious dictatorship.

    So far from the “Arab Spring” apart from seeing the surrounding armies destroying themselves, Israel has not benefited in the short or long-term. In fact, Israel has been very careful not to get involved and has very rarely responded to shells being fired on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The US has shown similar hesitance in getting involved, however the rising brutality and death toll is making it harder to look away and it is expected that slowly the involvement would increase, until a situation is reached, in which diplomacy could resume.

    It doesn’t matter where you stand and who you support, one thing which should be universally agreed is that the footage of children and other civilians getting killed and displaced is horrific and it seems that no one is doing enough to stop it.