Crazier ideas have worked before. The Israeli security sector is very uneasy with what’s happening right now across the Golan. Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez have never been friendly, but the Israel-Syria conflict has long been stabilized and fought through proxies. There’s a worry that the fall of the House of Assad will yield more urgent tension–at best, a fledgling government may attempt to shore up support by getting pushy about the Golan Heights. At worst, they see a small chance that Israel will have unstable Islamist governments in its two historic state rivals, plus Hezbollah on its northern border. What can Israel do to prevent that unhappy geopolitical outcome? More than you’d think.
In fact, Israel could view the Syria crisis as a historic opportunity to reshape its relations with the Arab world without making concessions in the peace process. The entire international community has refused–rightly–to intervene on behalf of the opposition. For the rest of the world, events in Syria simply don’t have an urgency–it’s a small, underperforming economy, and there is no clear path to stability and good governance. The failure in Afghanistan and the ambiguity of Iraq have slaked Western thirst for moralistic nationbuilding. Syrian opposition factions have watched as one more world power stands in the way of their salvation, as one more refuses to help. They grow increasingly desperate. A Syrian cleric recently appealed “even to Israel” on Kuwaiti television for aid in treating the many wounded. It’s a unique moment.
Some have argued that Assad, in near-suicidal panic, might attack Israel in order to gain public support; conversely, some have alleged that intervention in Syria would shore up the Assad regime. This might–might–apply for Syria’s ambivalent minorities, but it defies imagination that the residents of, say, the devastated neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs would suddenly hide behind the skirts of the dictator that has killed their cousins, sons, and daughters, simply because a few foreign aircraft showed up. The Jewish state would be seen as a hero, as a benefactor. Recall the many Western journalists who were surprised at the outpourings of support for France and America they saw in Benghazi. Israel wouldn’t become outrageously popular in the whole Arab world, but it would create a feeling of ambivalence in all but the most fanatical anti-Zionists. By acting on behalf of a neighboring population in a way that serves its own interests, Israel would be living up to the status it’s had all along–a regional great power. By acting in support of the opposition, they’d earn the support of key players in Syria’s future. The two states might never settle their differences–the Golan issue is likely intractable–but it would be difficult for even a radical government to bite the hand that fed them when nobody else would.
The devil is in the details. I don’t think the Israelis, even with a major air campaign, could actually bring down the Assad clan–not even if they killed Bashar and Maher. I don’t think they have the stomach for a land campaign–and I think the grind of ground combat, of house-to-house fighting, could quickly erode the intervention’s popularity. However, establishing humanitarian zones, protecting rebel enclaves, preventing mass deployments by the Syrian army, and wiping out Syrian air power are all well within their capabilities. The dangers are twofold. First, Syria has a major arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons. Israel would want certainty–which I suspect they can’t get–that these won’t be turned on Tel Aviv. Second, China and especially Russia have interests in the Assad regime and would be quite unhappy with Israel–a state they’re typically quite friendly with–if they stepped in.
Finally, there’s the one big problem, the reason Israel won’t intervene in Syria–Iran. Israel is highly focused on Iran, and may very well soon be at war with them. A major air campaign against Iran, and another in Syria, would give the IAF logistical trouble. Iran would also love the chance to indebt the Syrian regime to itself, and to draw the Israelis into a bleeding war hundreds of miles from Tehran, and they’d thus attempt to draw the Israelis in. It’s not a pretty picture, but the chance for a major shift in the hearts and minds of a neighboring state would be historical. Israeli leaders have noted–and the recent events in Egypt have confirmed–that the peace treaties they have with their neighbors are for peace between leaders, not peace between peoples. They are thus vulnerable, as in Egypt, to popular discontent. It may be time for Israel to spin the dreidel and hope for a gimel.