Israel wants Assad to remain in power. Both Israel and Assad depend on Russia, and when Israel threatens Assad over Iran, it should know it's threatening Russia, too
Early in 2012, the year after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the Foreign Ministry drafted recommendations on Israel’s position regarding Syrian President Bashar Assad. As Haaretz reported at the time, the ministry said Israel should denounce the slaughter in Syria and call for Assad’s ouster. It argued that Israel shouldn’t be the only Western country not to condemn Assad, since that would feed conspiracy theories that Israel preferred the mass murderer to remain in power.
The Israeli foreign minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman, accepted this recommendation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed it. Netanyahu denounced the slaughter and the Syrian army and charged that “various leaders have no moral qualms about killing their neighbors and their own people as well.” But he never mentioned Assad as the person responsible or demanded his ouster. Israel’s UN ambassador during that period, Ron Prosor, said Assad has “no moral right to lead his people,” but that was it.
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These diplomatic acrobatics and the Lieberman-Netanyahu dispute only fed the conspiracy theories, and Syrian rebel leaders were convinced that Israel wanted Assad to remain in power. They were right.
Now that Assad has regained control of most of Syria and is waging a final battle against rebels in the south, Israel is acting as if it is now reformulating its policy and becoming “reconciled” to Assad’s continued rule. Several weeks ago, Israel reportedly told Russia it wouldn’t oppose that, as if the decision were in its hands or as if Israel even had any leverage over what kind of government is in power in Syria after the war ends.
But Israel isn’t merely “reconciled” to rule by Assad. It also feared the prospect that the various rebel militias might succeed in ousting him, sparking a new civil war among the rebels themselves. Position papers drafted by the Israeli army and the Foreign Ministry over the past two years didn’t actually voice support for the Syrian president, but their assessments show that they viewed his continued rule as preferable or even vital for Israel’s security. Israel’s close cooperation with Russia, which gave Israeli forces a free hand to attack Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, added the Israelis to the unofficial coalition of Arab states that support Assad’s continued rule.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who met with the head of Syrian intelligence in 2015, said that same year that “Egypt and Syria are in the same boat.” Egyptian delegations visited Damascus despite Syria’s ouster from the Arab League, and in a 2017 interview, Al-Sissi even said that “Egypt supports the armies of states like Iraq, Libya and Syria.”
King Abdullah of Jordan was one of the first leaders to denounce Assad and demand his ouster. But he later reversed himself, thereby angering Saudi Arabia. And following conversations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian officials, even Riyadh is no longer publicly opposing Assad’s continued tenure.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in 2015, was initially viewed by Israel as ineffective and doomed to fail. But in reality, it bolstered Assad’s status domestically, created a coalition with Iran and Turkey and neutralized the intervention of Arab states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And since the United States had withdrawn from the arena even before that, Israel ostensibly had to make do with the lesser evil.
But the Russian coalition is no love affair. Tehran and Moscow are at odds over control of the de-escalation zones. Turkey, which invaded Kurdish areas of northern Syria, threatens Russia’s desire for a united Syrian state.
Therefore if Israel’s goal is to oust Iran from Syria, Russia — rather than the United States or the Arab states — is the only power capable of limiting Iran’s operations there and perhaps even getting it to leave.
Assad is deeply dependent on Russia, even more than on Iran. And that’s convenient for Israel, because it means Syria’s foreign policy, including its future policy toward Israel, will be vetted by the Kremlin, thereby at least ensuring coordination with Israel and a reduction in the threat from Syria. In exchange, Israel has committed not to undermine Assad’s rule.
Moreover, Israel has insisted that the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that followed the Yom Kippur War remains in effect, meaning Israel won’t accept Syrian forces in parts of the Golan Heights demilitarized under that agreement. Officially, UN observers oversee the agreement’s implementation. But in practice, it was the Assad regime that ensured that Syria upheld the agreement and that kept the border quiet for decades. Israel, which has a low opinion of UN observers, also used its military deterrence to persuade Assad that upholding the agreement served his interests.
Now Russia is effectively joining this supervisory force, and it sees eye to eye with Israel about the need to keep the border quiet. Therefore Israel ought to wish Assad sweeping success and a long life. And when Israeli ministers threaten his continued rule if he lets Iranian forces set up shop near Israel’s border, they should know they’re also threatening Russia — as well as Israel’s new strategic partner in the presidential palace in Damascus.