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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: May 20, 2013


Alpher discusses Syria's civil war and Israel's possible involvement, the best Syrian end-game from Israel's standpoint, whether, as long as Assad holds onto power, can the Syria-Israel border remain quiet, whether there are any signs of progress in Kerry's effort to renew final status negotiations,

Q. The past week has witnessed a flurry of Israeli and other media pronouncements, some perhaps apocryphal, regarding the desired outcome in Syria's civil war and Israel's possible involvement. Where does this leave us?

A. The allegations, threats and counter-threats have come at a bewildering pace. The most suspect of these pronouncements (e.g., Israel prefers that Assad remain in power) are those published by the Times and Sunday Times of London, which tends to feature sensationalism over credibility. By the end of the week, we witnessed the Netanyahu government--having been threatened by Syria's Assad and having responded by threatening to topple his regime if it attacks Israel--trying to return to its earlier sound policy of the most minimal involvement possible by reiterating its threat only to intervene to prevent the transfer by Syria of strategic weaponry to non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon. By the by, Netanyahu traveled to Russia to meet President Putin, but apparently failed to prevent Moscow from selling more such weaponry to Syria.

This round of threats and counter-threats, some of which appeared to reflect a sense of panic among Jerusalem decision-makers, was provoked by an unfortunate Pentagon assertion that Israel was behind attacks on Syrian-Hezbollah weapons transfers two weeks ago. That revelation rendered it difficult for Israel to maintain the opaque nature of its policy toward Syria and helped launch an escalatory verbal spiral. For now, the threats may have ended. But only until the next time: the situation in Syria is far too volatile for Israel to be able to remain entirely passive.

Q. All well and good. But what, in your view, is the best Syrian end-game from Israel's standpoint?

A. The following thoughts are highly speculative. They should be understood as little more than an exercise in creative strategic thinking. Broadly speaking, we are attempting to separate bad alternatives from worse in a situation where Israel has virtually no influence over the outcome.

I would argue that the least bad long-term end-game scenario from Israel's standpoint is the takeover of Syria by a moderate secular Sunni-dominated government. Note that the chances of this happening are close to nil: while secular Sunnis are active in the Syrian opposition, such governments don't exist today in the Arab Middle East. Despite this near-zero probability, were secular Sunnis somehow to grasp power, Israel would come under heavy pressure to reward this outcome by declaring its readiness to turn over the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace. The Levant region would at least temporarily be stabilized.

The next best outcome is the rise to power in Damascus of the Muslim Brotherhood. A few years ago, this seemed like a nightmare scenario. But with the strengthening of more extreme Salafist movements in Arab revolutionary countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, and in view of the relatively responsible behavior toward Israel displayed thus far by the Egyptian Muslim Brethren, a Syrian Brotherhood regime begins to look more acceptable. It might just be capable of coexisting peacefully with Israel, especially in view of the daunting task it would confront in rebuilding Syria.

Note that both of these two opening alternatives offer Israel the added advantage of removing Iranian influence from Syria and to a large extent from Lebanon's Hezbollah as well.

Third, Somalization: Syria descends into the chaos of warring clans and ethnic groups, none strong enough to wield effective power in Damascus. Peace or even peaceful coexistence would not be an option. Yet, while Israel's border with Syria would undoubtedly come under terrorist attack, the likelihood of a strategic threat emanating from Syria would be low, since most Syrians would be busy fighting one another and just surviving. On the other hand, Israel would confront the danger of this sort of anarchy spreading to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, with ramifications that are difficult to foresee.

In some ways, option three increasingly describes the current situation in Syria, which could indeed prevail for years.

Fourth in order of preference for Israel would be the survival of the Assad regime, bolstered by its allies Iran and Hezbollah. For the foreseeable future, this would likely mean no peace and no war with Syria--an extension of the status quo of the past 40 years. It would take years for Assad to reconsolidate his control over the entire country and rebuild infrastructure, thereby distracting the regime from external adventures. On the other hand, from Israel's standpoint this means the aggrandizement of Iranian power and influence in the Levant--a very negative prospect. Even in the short term, Iran and Hezbollah might feel empowered to open an active front against Israel along its Lebanon border. Moreover, from a broad regional perspective, this scenario appears to ratify or rationalize the wholesale murder and exile of a country's civilians by its embattled leader--a daunting prospect for the Middle East.

This is the "better the devil we know" approach that was ascribed last week to certain Israeli security figures.

Fifth and last, I would rank a takeover of Syria by Sunni Salafists of the Qaeda-Nusra school. To the extent they attained uncontested power in Damascus, they would quickly set their sights on neighbors like Israel and Jordan. Were they able to take over even a portion of Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons and missile delivery systems, this could mean, within a relatively short time, all-out war with Israel.

Additional scenarios come to mind, such as the partition of Syria into two or more ethnic statelets. But it is virtually impossible at this juncture to assess their specific ramifications for Israel or "rank" their desirability from Israel's standpoint.

Q. Meanwhile, and as long as Assad holds onto power, can the Syria-Israel border remain quiet?

A. In recent days, the Assad regime has begun responding to the perception of intervention by Turkey, Jordan and Israel not only with threats to attack them, but also by resurrecting dormant irredentist movements and "sponsoring" possible new guerilla/terrorist cross-border warfare by them. According to one report, Iran has persuaded Assad to allow Hezbollah to open an active front against Israel on the Golan. A hitherto unknown Palestinian group called the "Abd al-Qader al-Husseini Brigade" took credit for firing rockets at an Israeli observation point on Mount Hermon last week. Additional pro-Assad secular Palestinian groups like the Popular Front-General Command and the Popular Democratic Front have also boasted of planned attacks.

On the Turkish front, terrorist car bombs that killed over 50 Turks on May 11 in the border town of Reyhanli were blamed by Turkish authorities on a Turkish Marxist group resurrected by the Assad regime. Assad has also reportedly revived a Hatay liberation movement that he had closed down in 2005 when, at the height of a renaissance in Turkish-Syrian relations, he announced that Syria would no longer contest Turkey's 1939 annexation of the controversial border province, also known as Alexandretta.

This new Syrian strategy of encouraging cross-border attacks on Israel and Turkey should be understood as an attempt by Damascus, with Iranian and Hezbollah support, to deter Syria's neighbors from intervening in the fighting in Syria, whether they do so by supporting the rebels (Turkey, Jordan) or by attacking arms transfers to Hezbollah (Israel). Considering Hezbollah's active participation in the Syrian fighting and the growing involvement there by Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, this is almost certainly yet another step toward the regionalization of the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, Assad presumably calculates that pin-prick border attacks will not provoke an all-out Israeli or Turkish response, thereby enabling Assad to claim that he is "fighting back", yet without launching the kind of missile attacks that would provoke a regional war and hasten his downfall.

Q. US Secretary of State Kerry returns to the Israeli-Palestinian arena this week. Any sign of progress in his effort to renew final status negotiations?

A. To the extent Kerry has registered achievements in the form of commitments by PM Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas to offer mutual confidence-building measures, they are still being kept under wraps. Only a few such measures, such as Palestinian readiness to postpone appealing to international bodies in return for a UNESCO visit to certain East Jerusalem Muslim sites, have actually been carried out. At surface level, most indications should trouble Kerry.

Take, for example, recent revelations that, in his previous term, Netanyahu maintained behind-the-scenes peace negotiations with both senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo and, through American good offices, the Assad regime. Neither track led to a breakthrough, just as during Netanyahu's first term of office, 1996-1999, similar negotiations proved fruitless. Kerry and Abbas beware: Netanyahu is not afraid to negotiate; he knows this is good for stability and his international image. He simply doesn't want to reach agreement that requires giving up the territory in question.

Or take the Israeli "national panel of inquiry" that pronounced on Sunday that iconic footage from the start of the second intifada revealed that the Palestinian child, Mohammed Dura, who was allegedly killed in his father's arms by IDF bullets, did not actually die in the incident. Thirteen years after that famous exchange of fire in Gaza, we are informed by the prime minister and his associates that "there are many indications" that Mohammed and his father, Jamal, "were never hit by gunfire".

We will almost certainly never know what killed that little boy. His death was a tragic by-product of the fog of war. At the time, TV footage of the incident was energetically exploited by pro-Palestinian forces to sully Israel's image, boost the fortunes of the Palestinian underdog, and somehow rationalize Palestinian suicide bombings.

Why, years later, are all these Israeli efforts being invested, almost certainly with negligible international impact, to "correct" the record? The Netanyahu government is pathologically preoccupied with the need to improve Israel's image, yet without dealing with the root cause of its growing international isolation. Just last week we say how it countered the decision by British physicist Stephen Hawking to boycott next month's Jerusalem Conference because of the Palestinian issue: by reminding Hawking, as if that were relevant, how dependent he is personally on Israeli high-tech inventions. In general, Israeli "hasbara" or public diplomacy seems to think it can rectify Israel's image by reciting the country's many high-tech, agricultural and intellectual accomplishments. The guiding principle appears to be: talk about anything but the occupation and its disastrous consequences for all concerned, while hastening settlement construction that makes the situation even more intractable. (Not that I condone Hawking's boycott; it is ill-informed and counter-productive.)

Meanwhile, Palestinian preparations for a peace breakthrough look no more promising. Last week, Fateh and Hamas informed us that creation of a new national unity government--an important building block in Kerry's efforts--would be postponed for three months, which in the Middle East means an eternity. And senior Fateh members in the West Bank issued a document burying the two-state solution and calling for a single bi-national state in Israel-Palestine. Kerry, beware yet again: in Ramallah you are dealing with a well-intentioned leader who is virtually incapable of delivering on a full-fledged end-of-conflict agreement.

I hope Kerry succeeds. But I'm pessimistic. Perhaps more significantly, I hope that if and when he fails to renew full-fledged final status talks, he will consider falling back on more promising partial steps--like an additional Israeli territorial withdrawal or forward-looking exploitation of Palestine's new "state" status--that don't necessarily end the conflict but at least keep alive the process of solving it and maintain some sort of peace momentum.