In the previous article I wrote on Syria’s civil war, I questioned the unreserved support we in the West give the Syrian rebels. This support is indicative of the identity crisis in Western foreign policy which we keep pretending does not exist, but whose consequences are becoming too important to ignore. Due to intricate regional relationships, the outcome of the Syrian conflict could trigger regional disintegration, or if managed amicably, stave off a very destructive war.
The key players include the likes of Israel and Iran. Let's briefly review important connections in the area.
Israel is connected to America by a political umbilical cord, to Egypt by peace treaty and to Jordan – the Hashemites’ consolation prize after losing out to the Sauds – also by peace treaty. Apart from these sources of support, Israel does not have friends in the region.
Iran is connected to Syria via official friendly relations, to Lebanon via illicit networks embodied by Hezbollah and its affiliates, to Iraq via the sub-state groups that were one-time insurgency, and to Afghanistan in much the same way. The problem is, Iran’s connections can bring as much trouble as they do profit, but when you find yourself on the receiving end of the West’s sanctions, you have to get creative.
Aside from Egypt and Iran (the only innate regional nation-states), the map of the Middle East was drawn by Western great powers as they saw fit. These borders underlie what I think is the most important system of relationships in the region – Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.
While there are other denominations of Islam in the Mideast, these two are the Earth-shakers, so to speak. Religious tension within Islam also plays out in the foreign policies of countries dominated by one or the other – for example, in Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran's mutual distrust of one another, although America’s support for the former might also be a big variable in the equation. The current state configuration also means that there are countries, like Iraq, where these religious denominations are divided regionally. Destabilization could very well mean the disintegration of the state along these fault lines.
The war in Syria is a precarious security risk first and foremost for Israel, because the strategic imperative for the Jewish state is to have as much peace and quiet on its borders as possible. When the country next door is blowing up in flames, thinking about a hard power alternative to prevent spillover is only sensible on behalf of Tel Aviv.
The setting for such a confrontation will most likely be Lebanon. Hezbollah is better positioned for any kind of operations, since its capacity is not taken up with domestic unrest. Israel could choose to fight a two-front war in Syria and Lebanon, but this is an option that I think the defense ministry would rather not see play out.
Hezbollah is particularly worrisome because they hold tens of thousands of missiles of various calibre, and Israel’s entire territory is within reach. The Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 was Israel’s attempt to neutralize that arsenal, but that end was ultimately not achieved. In all-out war, countermeasures would be simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of missiles coming down, and the number of casualties cannot be projected. Key here is a small detail – most rocket-related incidents are reported to end up without damage or death to Israel; however, as Israel is a small country and its geography clear to Hezbollah, directional firing would probably be the order of the day in the event of war.
Should the conflict spill out of Syria’s borders, it would also be an opportunity for Iran to expand its transnational influence. Such an opportunity translates into nearly unacceptable risk for Israel, equivalent to Hezbollah’s rocketry program or Iraq’s nuclear ambitions in the 1980s. The typical reaction is pre-emptive attack to neutralize the threat, but this would quickly escalate from targeting Iran’s asymmetric capabilities to its nuclear program. From there, it becomes a strategic interstate war. At this point, it is not Iran’s sabre rattling, but traditional Israeli foreign policy that becomes the existential threat and poses an incalculable risk. Netanyahu’s incessant calling for an attack is a macabre, but ironic demonstration about the identity crisis in Israeli foreign policy: its utter lack of creativity.
What we’re looking at is a potentially collapsing Syria, nothing less than the pulverization of Lebanon, Hezbollah’s rain of death on Israel and strategic war with Iran. Unwillingly, Israel becomes the centerpiece in this scenario, with the exception that it would be conventionally overwhelmed; Israel is not designed for prolonged war, and this is what could result. God forbid, we resort to nuclear weapons – they are the not only a guarantor of peace, but also a messenger of death on an inhuman scale. If Israel finds itself in a geopolitical corner, will it use its nuclear weapons?
Now, for America’s reaction to this nightmarish scenario. Earlier this week, President Obama said that chemical weapon use by Syria would be a redline for U.S. involvement in the country. Bashar al-Assad knows that it’s one thing to bomb rag-tag rebels at will several times a day, and quite another to fight the best conventional force on the planet; even if down, American power is not out by a long shot.
America would prefer to not get drawn into another prolonged war in the Mideast after Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has made it clear that America would only come to the defense of Israel, if it is attacked by another state, but will not support Netanyahu’s misguided adventures of pre-emption; if the opposite were true, Israel would have attacked Iran a long time ago. It is unclear if this moment would be where the scales tip for America on supporting Israel: On the one hand, the costs of another war could drive the economy in a very long depression and shut out the Mideast for American foreign policy for decades, if not centuries. On the other hand, sacrificing Israel for wider geopolitical choices is a cold, but rational perspective. This is a choice Washington should not have to make at all.
There is, however, one preferable anti-climax: the conflict doesn’t spill out, Assad agrees to retire from power, the regime reforms to include the rebels, and we wake to an Islamic Republic of Syria; then the familiar sabre rattling continues, Israel is in one piece and people don’t die (mostly). I like that idea better.