As Syrian forces close in on rebels in the south, experts say Israel likely to be at ease with Assad remaining in power.
Israel’s position on the war in Syria, now in its eighth year, has long been a matter of speculation among political analysts and residents of the region.
Some peddle the view that Israel prefers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power. Under his government, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan region remained quiet, and the rise of the Syrian opposition to power would have posited an unknown threat to Israel.
Others, however, argue that Assad’s close relationship with Iran, allowing the latter to intervene in the war and spread its influence close to the border with Israel, poses an even larger threat.
But as Russian-backed forces of President Assad close in on rebels in southern Syria and attempt to end the war, analysts say Israel is likely to be at ease with Assad remaining in power, despite repeated calls by Israeli politicians for the president’s overthrow.
“With the growing realisation that the Assad regime will remain in power, there is a tendency in Israel – and this was probably the result of recent Israeli-US-Russian consultation – to ensure Israel’s acceptance of the Assad regime,” Elie Podeh, a professor of the Middle East at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.
“The bottom line is that Israel wants to ensure the stability and quietness of the Israeli-Syrian border, and if the Assad regime will do its share – as in the past – then Israel will be satisfied,” added Podeh.
Since Russia‘s intervention in the war in 2015, Israel, which maintains a good relationship with Moscow, has been allowed to freely carry out air raids against Iranian, Syrian and the Lebanese Hezbollah group positions deep inside Syria.
Pointing to Moscow’s role as a mediator between the many parties involved in the war, and its control of Syria’s airspace, political commentators say Russia’s intervention changed Israel’s position on Assad, albeit implicitly.
“Russia’s intervention in 2015 gave the Israeli government someone to talk to and strike deals with,” Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Russia and Israel have developed their own understandings to avoid clashing in the air and to preserve Israel’s freedom of action in Syria without undermining Russian war plans,” he continued, adding that the developments “restored a measure of predictability to the situation”.
Similarly, Ofer Zalzberg, the Israel/Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, says that until late 2016, “most Israeli leaders and officials expected and hoped Syria would fragment to statelets,” thinking “this would render the most powerful hostile neighbouring country weaker.”
But with Assad regaining control, owing to Russia’s intervention, “Israel established deconfliction and coordination mechanisms with Moscow and learned to strike a balance between the interests of the US and Russia,” he told Al Jazeera.
While Israel is pressuring the United States to keep its forces inside Syria, said Zalzberg, it is also securing Moscow’s consent for Israel using military force against what it considers to be “targets” inside Syria.
Israeli media is also pointing to the shift.
On Tuesday, Zvi Bar’el, the Middle East affairs analyst for Haaretz, wrote that “Israel wants Assad to remain in power.”
With Assad’s dependency on Russia, wrote Bar’el, Syria’s future foreign policy, including its position towards 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,” he added.
‘Measure of stability under the Assads’
Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since 1948, after the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias, and the Arab-Israeli war that ensued in the same year.
In 1967, Israel occupied the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights and continues to occupy part of it to this day.
The two countries signed a disengagement agreement in 1974 following the 1973 war between Israel, Syria and Egypt.
The border region remained relatively quiet since then.
“There was a measure of stability and predictability to the way Syria acted under the Assads. That was a good thing, from an Israeli point of view,” said Lund, referring to both Bashar and his father, who ruled before him.
“They already had the Golan Heights and they enjoyed military superiority, so it was practical to have a rational, survival-interested actor in charge in Damascus even if that came with proxy conflicts and other discomforts,” he added.
But the eruption of the war in Syria in 2011 unleashed a new chapter in Israeli-Syrian relations.
The growing power and influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria is Israel’s primary concern – a fear that it does not conceal.
Worried that Iran is transferring weapons to Hezbollah, Israel has frequently targeted arms convoys, saying it would continue to block any attempts to buttress the Lebanese movement.
It has also carried out routine attacks in the form of rocket fire, as well as assassinations and air raids since the war began, while the Syrian government has never directly retaliated.
Zalzberg says Russia’s good relations with Israel, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah means that it is “best positioned to broker understandings” between the parties.
And with Moscow’s political interest in keeping Assad in power while maintaining its influence there, Lund believes that for now, the powers involved in Syria’s proxy war are comfortable with the status quo.
“Russia has been keen to float ideas about how it could be a counterweight to Iran, in order to attract Western interest for solutions that would keep Assad in power and enhance Russia’s role as a political broker,” said Lund.
“Both Israel and the United States have repeatedly shown interest in that.”
Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan
SOURCE: Al Jazeera News