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By Joshua Tartakovsky, April 15, 2017
I have written in the past on Israel’s support for rebels in Syria. In light of the recent intensification in Syria, perhaps it is time to explain why.
It is not a pleasant sight to see Israel aiding bearded fanatics who seek to topple the secular and brutal regime of Assad, especially when Israel battles the same Islamic radicals in Gaza or the West Bank. But for Israel support for rebels is a matter of survival and is qualitatively different from the interests of the United States, Russia or Turkey.
Syrian President Assad has been the main supplier of weapons to Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla organization in South Lebanon, which has been battling ISIS in Syria. Hezbollah was founded after Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon which was itself proceeded by PLO’s firing of missiles into northern Israel. In an attempt to establish security for the residents in northern Israel, it engaged in an 18 years long occupation of a buffer zone in South Lebanon, and thereby sought to push off terrorists who were launching missiles into civilian populations further away.
But while Israeli soldiers in 1982 were initially greeted as saviors by Lebanese Shiites, over time Hezbollah, an organization supported by Iran and led by Shiite clerics, developed as a response to Israel’s occupation of the region and engaged in very effective guerrilla operations against the Israeli army that eventually forced the latter’s withdrawal in 24 May 2000.
Now Hezbollah contains a vast missile arsenal which has a potential to hit as far as southern Israel. In the two recent wars Israel waged with Hezbollah both sides suffered significant losses.
In earlier occasions Hezbollah’s missiles hit Haifa in the north, causing vast civilian deaths. Israel has bombarded Lebanon heavily during past conflicts.
Despite Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon, Hezbollah still sees itself as a liberation force meant to conquer the whole of Israel. Supported by Iran, which supports the de facto ethnic cleansing of Israel from its Jewish residents – at least those who has returned to the Holy Land in the past 100 years – Hezbollah sees itself as the spearhead of the Islamic world’s war against Israel.
So, Israel is faced with two realistic choices: allow Hezbollah to prosper and attack it, or destabilize Syria so as to cut off Hezbollah from Syria and prevent the flow of arms. True, turning Syria into a base of Sunni radicals is not a very rosy picture, but understandably from Israel’s perspective, the Sunni fanatics pose a lesser threat than Hezbollah. They are less organized and less capable, and at least a decade may pass before they can attack Israel successfully, if ever.
The United States would like to see Assad removed due to allegations of committing acts of genocide against his own people, and also since he is an independent non-western political force. Assad is de factor the protector of minorities in Syria, including Christians and the few Jews who still live there. If Syria is turned over to ISIS and Assad is removed, Syria is likely to turn into one large al Qaeda type based from which attacks could be launched throughout Europe and elsewhere. Russia would like Assad to remain since Syria is its ally, and since it fears it will be the next target if terrorists in Syria have their way, as Libya ended up as a disaster. Turkey would like to bring down the Kurds and have influence in Syria, and therefore it prefers it will be governed by Islamists.
But for all the countries above, radical Sunni elements or Hezbollah do not pose a threat as immediate as the one posed by Hezbollah to Israel. At the same time, it should be obvious that the threat the jihadists in Syria pose to the Syrian government is far greater than the threat posed by Hezbollah to Israel.
Israel has been the punching bag of many western leftists and academics. But Israel’s support for regime change in Syria is understandable, considering the fact that Hezbollah has the capacity to attack its cities with advanced missiles and is an ideological-religious organization bent on its destruction.
Russia and Iran may dislike Israel’s support for regime change in Syria, and Putin attacked Netanyahu for speaking against Assad, but if Russia and Iran were serious about solving the Syrian conundrum, they should have pushed Hezbollah to recognize Israel. Of course, Iran is not about to do that but Russia could have and did not.
Feeble and gullible conspiracy theorists believe Israel is supporting jihadists in Syria since it wants to expand into Syria. But they cannot respond rationally to the questions on why Israel would want to annex Sunni areas in Syria when it can’t even bring itself to annex the West Bank, why did it withdraw from South Lebanon if expansion was always the plan, and – if it is bent on expanding – why did it give to Egypt the entire Sinai, which was twice the size of Israel in 1978?).
However, Israel’s support for radicals in Syria has its risks. Granted, Israel is now playing the imperial tactic of Divide and Conquer, decades after it opposed British colonialism in Palestine and successfully liberated the country. Such tactics tend to backfire eventually, though Korea, Pakistan-India, Israel-Palestine still suffer from the open wounds of successful British designs.
The war in Syria will likely intensify and may lead to a third world war and it’s probably too late for dialogue or change. But Israel’s support for Islamic rebels in Syria, whether through medical aid alone or by other means, makes sense from its survival instincts.