The War Next Door

Horrifying as the Syrian civil war is, Israel’s best policy option is to stay out

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

In an age-long past—we’re talking about more than two years ago—the country to Israel’s northeast was ruled by a stable but despotic regime. After the battering that it took in its 1973 war with Israel, Syria carefully kept the de facto border quiet. But the regime outsourced the conflict to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that the bloodletting between the countries never really stopped. Meanwhile the ruling Assad dynasty stockpiled missiles and poison gas.

It would be hard to say that anyone in Israel is exactly nostalgic for those bad old days. Then again, it’s hard to find anyone who expects better days ahead. The first thing that a local Syria-watcher or ex-general will tell you is that the Israeli government hasn’t managed to decide what it wants to see happen in Syria. The second thing that she or he will say is that this doesn’t really matter: Israel can’t influence the outcome, and all the realistic possibilities look awful. Right now, even the meager hope for a stable regime in Damascus, no matter how anti-Israel, sounds utopian. The direct, public involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war hasn’t significantly changed this pessimistic perspective. Nor has the still-vague promise of the United States and other Western countries to send arms to Syrian rebels.

A reminder: Hezbollah stepped up its role this spring in Syria after months of low-profile support for the Assad regime. By late May, several thousand fighters from the Lebanese Shi’ite organization were fighting alongside government troops in the battle for the town of Al-Qusayr, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech acknowledging his group’s engagement in the civil war. The town’s strategic location near the Lebanese border wasn’t the only reason it mattered to Hezbollah. Some 30,000 Syrian Shi’ites—members of a pro-regime minority that makes up 2 percent of Syria’s population—live in nearby villages, notes a recent report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which is linked to the Israeli intelligence community. On June 5, Al-Qusayr fell to the government.

And yet, despite the victory, Hezbollah has weakened itself, Israeli analysts assert. “When you enter a civil war in a place that’s not your own, you only pay a price,” says Tel Aviv University professor Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria, “and Hezbollah is discovering that.” Hezbollah’s professed raison d’être as an armed organization—defending Lebanon from Israel—has shattered, argues Anat Kurz, research director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Nasrallah has forfeited his image as a hero in the Arab world, and the Resistance Axis of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria has come undone. Last week Hamas—a Sunni group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood—demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria. Another Hezbollah effort in Syria—training Shi’ite and Alawite militias—is “preparation for the possible collapse of the Syrian regime,” says the Amit Center report. This isn’t a Hezbollah vote of confidence in Bashar al-Assad.

Read the rest here.