The involvement of Israel vis-a-vis Syria has been a contentious topic since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Pro-regimers claim that overthrowing Assad is in Israel’s interest, Zionists are supporting the revolutionaries, and some have even gone so far as to claim that there are Zionists operating in Syria today. Basically, they contend that the entire Syrian Revolution is a Zionist plot to overthrow the bastion of resistance that is Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria. Pro-revolutionaries’ response to these arguments is that overthrowing Assad is actually not in Israel’s interest, because although Assad talks tough, he has in effect guaranteed Israel stability by refraining from challenging Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. The Israeli-Syrian “border”, they point out, has been Israel’s quietest border, and therefore, Israel has an interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria. In addition to this, there are many instances in history whereby Syria has taken a position against the Palestinian cause, including during the Lebanese Civil War(where the Hafez al-Assad sided with the reactionary Lebanese Phalangist forces against the PLO and the Lebanese leftist forces), the Tel Al-Zaatar Massacre, and the War of the Camps in Beirut.
However, these arguments are simply rhetorical. Those who claim Zionists are working with the Free Syrian Army in Syria to overthrow Assad and those who claim that Israel has an interest in the status quo are basing their arguments on historical political evidence rather than recent rhetoric and actions of the various parties. And the various ‘reports’ we have been getting from the media on the relation between the Syrian revolution and Israel have not been helpful either. For example this article in Israel National News claims that a “Syrian rebel leader” stated that in a post-Assad Syria, “Israel will remain an enemy.” At the same time, this article in Haaretz implies the opposite, whereby an interview with another “Syrian rebel leader” reassures Israel concerning their stability in a post-Assad Syria.
What follows is an examination of Israeli-Syrian relations that hopefully sheds some light on the relation between Israel, the Assad regime, and the Syrian revolution.
First of all, despite the collective amnesia of some pro-regimers, the Assad regime did engage in peace talks with Israel as recently as 2008. So, its portrayal by some as an unrelenting, committed member of the Axis of Resistance and Rejectionist bloc is insincere. Unlike Iran and Hezbollah, who will probably never engage with Israel, Israel knows from past experience that the Assad regime is at least open to the idea. The Assad regime’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is not out of sheer principle, but political calculation. Furthermore, normalizing relations with Israel requires a dictator, as only an unelected, unaccountable dictator(like Sadat) can push through such an unpopular position without fear of repercussions from the people. Therefore, it is likely that normalizing relations between Israel and Syria could only have happened with a figure like Bashar al-Assad being president and forcing it through despite objections.
However, this was all before the revolution. Since the revolution the Assad regime’s attitude has not been so clear. It has tried to blame the crisis on foreign agents, chief among them, Israel. But at the same time, Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, told the New York Times in an interview that, “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.” Quite a frank admission on the part of someone so high up in the regime. In addition to that, in July 2011, four months into the uprising, the Assad regime announced that it would recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is hardly a radical position, in fact, it is a position that de facto gives up the claim to Jerusalem and recognizes Israel. Recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders implicitly recognizes the state of Israel in the territory it captured in 1948. This implicit recognition of Israel is certainly not a position characteristic of a state that is considered a member of the “Rejectionist Bloc”, especially considering the fact that Mahmoud Abbas himself ‘welcomed Syrian recognition of a Palestinian state.’
What about Israel’s attitude? Israel has not said much about the Syrian revolution since it began. However, the few times it has said something are revealing. For one, Israelis openly admit that “at the top of Israel’s list of concerns is the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into rogue hands, possibly al-Qaida or even Hezbollah.”
But what is even more revealing is Netanyahu’s response to the Houla Massacre. Now obviously, it was a no-brainer for Netanyahu to condemn it, as almost every other state was doing. So, according to this article in JTA, “Netanyahu expressed his ‘revulsion over the ongoing massacre being perpetrated by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad against innocent civilians, which continued over the weekend in Houla and included dozens of innocent children.'” According to the article, this was “the first time that Netanyahu has addressed atrocities in Syria since the uprising in the country began more than a year ago.” Things get interesting, however, when, after the condemnation of the Houla Massacre, Netanyahu states, “Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities and the world needs to act against them.”
Is it not telling that the first time Netanyahu ever addresses the atrocities happening in Syria, he feels the need to throw in Iran and Hezbollah? Iran and Hezbollah had nothing to do with the massacre that was perpetrated. What Netanyahu reveals, however, is that any criticism of the Assad regime must include some criticism of what he thinks are his real enemies. He doesn’t care that the Houla Massacre made the Assad regime look bad. Someone interested in overthrowing the Assad regime in and of itself would go on and on about how this massacre was perpetrated by an illegitimate regime that is killing its own people and must be overthrown immediately. But, no, not Netanyahu. Netanyahu gives us a token statement of condemnation of the massacre, then proceeds to attack Iran and Hezbollah. Why? Because he doesn’t think the Assad regime is really all that worth attacking. Because the only way he is trying to capitalize on the Syrian revolution isn’t by trying to get rid of Assad and supporting the revolution, but by somehow tying the atrocities that Assad is committing with the people that he really has a problem with.
Anyone who claims that Israel is supporting the revolution in Syria, or any other conspiracy theory about Zionist influence on the revolution, simply hasn’t been following the relations between the two governments. Random anonymous reports by people who claim to be Syrian rebels who support Israel mean nothing. What matters is what states actually do, not unconfirmed news or conjecture. And what the Syrian state controlled by Assad has done is showed an enormous amount of willingness to accommodate Israel’s interests and even warn Israel of what would happen in a post-Assad Syria. And what the state of Israel has done is shown a reluctance to condemn Assad harshly and call for his removal. Thus, Israel’s attitude towards the Syrian revolution is one of skepticism and fear of uncertainty, and not one of enthusiastic support. To those claiming that Israel is involved in the Syrian revolution, please, look at what the state of Israel and the Assad regime are actually doing and saying before jumping to conclusions based on conjecture in an effort to slander the Syrian revolution.