Since the start of the Syrian civil war more than six years ago, Israel and its north-eastern neighbor have been at pains to avoid a spill-over that would end in full-blown hostilities between the two historic enemies. In recent weeks, this status quo has been rattled to a point that has created a heightened risk of both sides miscalculating themselves into conflict, at least a limited one.
Neither of them has an interest in this happening, or has much to gain from it, but a dangerous dynamic is developing. The proximity of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah to Israel’s borders add a further ingredient that makes Israel’s security establishment very uncomfortable. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israeli involvement has been painstakingly limited, aimed at avoiding being dragged into an unpredictable and unwinnable situation.
More recently, battles between the Syrian military and rebel groups have moved much closer to Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This has led to at least 17 cases of errant fire landing on Israel’s side of the Golan. Israel’s instant and more forceful retaliation than usual, by its air force and artillery, was a clear signal to the regime in Damascus that it will not tolerate such crossfire even if it is obvious that Israel is not the intended target.
Since day one of the Syrian conflict, the Netanyahu government has adhered to its policy of responding to any firing on what Israel considers its own territory, or the transfer from or through Syria of weapons, especially sophisticated ones, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Whereas the logic of both red lines, and rarely diverting from them, served Israeli security interests, they each represent very different challenges for Israel.
The growing presence of Iran and Hezbollah is a strategic and long-term threat, while the cross-border firing is a more specific and contained challenge. Barring the possibility that Syria, deep in the quagmire of its own tragedy, is interested in opening a new front, this cross-border military spillage is due to intense fighting in the Quneitra area, especially its eastern part.
This area includes a highly strategic road between Damascus, the Jordanian border and the city of Daraa. Losing this area would be detrimental to the Assad regime, as it provides easy access to the Syrian capital. Military assaults by the Salafi Islamist organization Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra, in cooperation with other Islamist rebel groups, unnerves regime troops by threatening to reduce the area they control near this strategic route to Damascus.
The danger arises not with the intentions of both sides, but with the circumstances that might lead to a miscalculated and misjudged sequence of military provocations that might escalate into wider acts of aggression.
The Netanyahu government has adhered to its policy of responding to any firing on what Israel considers its own territory, or the transfer from or through Syria of weapons, especially sophisticated ones, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The customary incendiary rhetoric is exacerbating an already very sensitive situation. It does not help calm the situation when Israel’s leadership is adamant that it will retaliate militarily to any cross-border fire, and that Syria’s top echelon blames Israel for supporting Islamists in Syria. Israel does provide some material and humanitarian assistance to certain groups close to the border, but this is far from changing the balance of power.
Restraints in military terms and verbal provocation are paramount to preventing deterioration in relations between the two countries, which are officially still in a state of war. Last week’s events were something of a watershed in these sensitive and uneasy relations.
In the past, no more than one or two mortars landed on the Israeli side in each incident; this time it was considerably more. Though they landed in open areas, it was in some cases during the weekend, when many thousands of Israelis visit the Golan; this could have resulted in Israeli civilian casualties. This to an extent can explain the severity of Israeli retaliation, but is nevertheless a matter of grave concern.
Israel maintains its red lines in Syria, but strategically it is as confused today as it was more than six years ago over what outcome to the Syrian conflict would best serve its interests. The temptation for Israeli strategists is to welcome the total chaos and disintegration of Syria and of other countries in the region. This keeps Syria weak and without serious military capabilities to challenge Israel.
But this is a short-term view as it opens the space for extreme elements that in the long term are considerably more hostile to Israel. By its own account, Israel sees Iran and Hezbollah as posing the main strategic threat to its existence. At a recent conference, the head of Israeli military intelligence Herzl Levy said the Iran-Hezbollah axis is the main existential threat.
One may or may not agree with him, but it is obvious that the lack of regional stability and the disintegration of Syria are contributing to their power. Hence Israeli interests lie with a solution to the Syrian tragedy that will bring about stability and reduce Iranian-Hezbollah influence there.
• The author is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.