Syrian crisis present more immediate threat to Israel

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By Norman Bailey

Israel is wisely keeping out of the fray in Syria, but it may be challenged all the same.

There are more than two dozen state and non-state actors battling over the prostrate body of what used to be Syria, one of the artificial entities carved out in the Middle East by the British and French from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire. Syria, along with two others of those artificial constructs, Iraq and Lebanon, has become a failed state.

A sign on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights . / Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency
A sign on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights . / Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency

What the eventual new regional configuration will look like at some point in the future is impossible to guess now. What can be done is to try to make some sense of the current situation and try to identify trends. This is important, because right now the chaos in Syria is the single most dangerous threat to the State of Israel, more so even than Iran for the time being.

Minor actors rampaging over the ravaged Syrian landscape include a series of jihadist or secular armed factions, some supported by the U.S., some by Iran, some by Turkey and some by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. None is significant by itself. Air sorties are flown by the Russians, the British, the French, the U.S., the Saudis and some of the Gulf States. State actors with significant ground forces in Syria include the Alawite army of Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia. In the wings, engaging in cross-border shelling and bombing, is Turkey.

Major non-state entities wielding substantial ground forces are Hizbullah, Islamic State, al-Nusra Front (the Al Qaida affiliate) and the Syrian Kurds. Hizbullah, Russia and Iran support Assad. Turkey, the Saudis, the Gulf States and the US and its allies support the secular/Jihadist groups in opposition to Assad and Islamic State. Al Nusra sustains itself, along with many of the other the non-state actors, by engaging in shifting alliances with armed criminal syndicates involved in illegal oil trading, drug trafficking, smuggling of arms and other products and people, especially “refugees”. In the meantime the Kurds are supported by the US and attacked by the Turks.

It is, indeed, a witches’ brew, and may get even more complicated if Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia become directly involved on the ground. So far, the Israeli government has very wisely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, and indeed benefited from the fact that some of its inveterate enemies, especially Hizbullah, are actively engaged in factional fighting and thus for the time being leaving Israel largely alone.

This will not last forever. Already cross-border incidents have occurred, but the real nightmare situation would be for the Israelis to wake up one morning with tens of thousands of real Syrian refugees; women, babies, children, massing at the frontier and beginning to walk across. What would Israel do? Machine-gun them? Bomb them? Of course not. Let them in? Unthinkable. Even if the first twenty thousand or so could be absorbed, letting those in would encourage more tens of thousands to try to enter.

The decision was recently made to build a security fence around the entire northern border; indeed, around all of Israel that is not already fenced-in. This project must be pursued with all possible speed. At this point not even the fence along the Jordanian border is yet completed.

Otherwise, refugee camps will have to be established near the frontier and supplied with food, electricity and water, as well as shelter, with the understanding that whenever (if) stability is restored on some basis in the former Syria, the refugees will be sent back. All of this will be expensive, of course, but any likely alternative scenario would be much more expensive, and not just in money.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C., and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa. This column was also published by Globes, the Israeli business daily.