By Benedetta Berti
While the eyes of the world are focused on the raging military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel is dealing with broader instability in its immediate surroundings: from mass-scale anti-government demonstrations in Jordan, to continued insecurity in the Egyptian Sinai, to growing unrest in the West Bank. Lately, even the ceasefire line with Syria, after decades of calm, has become an issue of potential concern for Israel. In the past weeks, the ongoing internal war in Syria repeatedly spilled into Israel.
Although these episodes were not the first instances of errant Syrian mortars shells landing into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, what changed in the past few weeks is that the Israeli army decided, for the first time, to fire back. The first IDF “warning shot” against Syria was accompanied by public declarations asserting that Israel would not tolerate any type of cross-border firing.
Although limited, these confrontations are significant because they go against the well-established “rules of the game” between the Assad regime and the Israeli government who, despite their reciprocal animosity, had managed to preserve decades of calm along the ceasefire line.
In light of this escalation, it is legitimate to ask whether either Israel or Syria would indeed have an interest in pushing a military confrontation and whether there is therefore a risk of expansion of the current confrontation with Gaza. For the time being, the answer should be negative.
From the Assad regime perspective, a confrontation with Israel would serve to divert attention from the domestic civil war and to attempt mobilizing support for the regime. Assad had already partly resorted to this tactic in May and June 2011, when the government allowed Palestinian refugees to mobilize close to the ceasefire line, leading to clashes with the IDF. Although the Syrian government had not organized the spring 2011 border protests, still it allowed the mobilizations to happen and later used them to boost its profile as the ‘protector of the resistance.’ The Syrian government also relied on the chaos on the border to convey to Israel that, if the Assad government were to fall, anarchy and mayhem would prevail in Syria, with serious negative consequences for Israel as well.
Still, beyond these limited episodes, the Syrian government has largely avoided stirring up trouble along the ceasefire line, resorting to anti-Israeli statements mostly as a rhetorical device, devoid of any substance.
It would be hard to believe that Assad has now shifted policy and is openly seeking a military exchange with Israel. The regime is bogged down in its internal war, increasingly more challenged by the opposition forces and, as such, it is unlikely that it would attempt opening a new front of confrontation.
Despite the appearances, the Syrian regime is cold-blooded and rational in devising and implementing its brutal policy of oppression against its internal opposition. Foreign adventurism is unlikely to be in the cards, despite the fact that repeated skirmishes with Israel may boost its popularity. On the contrary, the regime indirectly benefits from staying out of the military confrontation between Israel and Hamas, as this serves to divert international attention and pressure away from Damascus, giving the regime even more leeway to pursue its own war.
On the other side, Israel may feel the need to respond more forcefully to spillovers of violence from Syria, mindful of its ever more shaky borders and determined to boost its deterrence at the regional level.
But getting involved in a confrontation with the Assad regime would not only be dangerous for regional stability, it would also be counter-productive. Since the beginning of the Arab awakening, Israel has consistently been weary of the ongoing regional changes, quietly rooting for the status quo to prevail.
This was initially Israel’s position on Syria as well. The argument was that, despite his rhetoric, Assad was both risk-adverse and predictable, making him a more suitable alternative to the rise of a potentially radical Islamist state at the border with Israel. However, with the passing of time and the deterioration of the conflict, Israel has quietly shifted its outlook on Syria, going from supporting the status quo to openly condemning Assad. Within decision-making circles within Israel, more and more voices are openly calling for the demise of Assad and his regime. The rationale behind this posture is that the risks posed by the rise of a new Syrian government are outweighed by the serious blow that the end of the Assad regime would inflict on two of Israel’s main regional foes, Iran and Hezbollah.
This is the case even though Israel’s policy on Syria has been mostly passive, mindful that any eventual support to the Syrian opposition would be both unwelcomed as well as a true “bear hug.”
Keeping this posture in mind, it seems clear that Israel’s interest goes against being dragged into any type of confrontation with the Assad regime, as this would only strengthen his profile and popularity. But even though the immediate interests of both the Israeli and the Syrian government seem to go against the possibility of a wider military confrontation occurring, still the recent skirmishes along the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire line should be taken very seriously.
Put simply, they are an additional confirmation that the longer the Syrian conflict continues, the more it becomes regionalized and dangerous. The ongoing internal war in Syria is already regional in terms of players involved and stakes. Increasingly it is obvious that its magnitude and impact of the conflict are regional as well, strengthening the case for the international community to urgently seek its resolution.
Dr. Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a Young Atlanticist at the Atlantic Council, and the coauthor of Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Dr. Berti is also a UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) global expert.