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The US and Israel differ on Syria and that’s fine

Diverging outlooks, not opposing interests, will drive possible American intervention while Israel stays on the sidelines

As the Syrian civil war enters its third year, the US and Israel are pursuing increasingly different policies. This is the product of diverging outlooks, not conflicting interests. During the past two years Washington and Jerusalem conducted low profile, often passive, policies in the Syrian crisis. More recently pressures have been mounting on the Obama Administration to become more involved in putting an end to the human tragedy and explosive crisis in Syria, while Israel adheres to a policy of careful watchfulness.

As the Syrian crisis broke out and festered, the US and Israel tended to view it in similar terms. Both believe that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is doomed, that the sooner he leaves power or toppled the better, and that the opposition is weak, divided and fails to project a prospect of a stable, forward looking alternative, that the dangers of chaos, partition and radical takeover are serious, that Assad’s fall would be a serious blow to Iran’s regional position and to Hezbollah, and that the regime’s stockpiles of advanced weapon systems and weapons of mass destruction pose a grave threat to the region. A decision by the regime to use chemical weapons against its own population, the fall of such weapons into Jihadi hands, or the transfer of advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah, would all trigger international and regional responses and could turn a regional conflict into a regional crisis.

These issues and the terrible humanitarian tragedy notwithstanding, the Obama Administration had been determined until recently to keep a low profile in the Syrian crisis. This policy was governed by the reluctance to be drawn into a third Middle Eastern war and by the shadow of Iraq. That shadow means that the administration, recognizing the weakness of the opposition and the complex nature of Syrian society, is afraid that once it becomes deeply involved in the crisis it will have to manage and rebuild a fractured country at a price that has now become all too familiar. Likewise, the White House had felt that the first serious step taken in support of the rebels would become the first step in a slippery slope, that a no fly zone would ultimately lead to full fledged military involvement. Consequently, the administration limited its role to participation with other international powers in denouncing the regime and in providing non-lethal equipment and training. It was quite happy to see Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar take the lead in helping and aiding the opposition.

Israel during the past two decades had an ambivalent view of Assad’s regime. It recognized its devastating impact as Iran’s ally, the supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas. But for precisely these reasons an important school of thought in Israel argued that it was in Israel’s interest to strike a deal with Syria and pull it out of Iran’s orbit. Prime Minister Netanyahu, his rhetoric notwithstanding, was negotiating indirectly with Bashar al-Assad through the US until the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion. Once Israel realized the severity of the challenge to Assad and reached the conclusion that he was doomed, it decided on a passive policy. This was based on the assumption that Israel had no influence inside of Syria and that any help it would give to the opposition would serve to delegitimize it and to vindicate Assad’s claim that it was not an authentic domestic revolt, but instead an Israeli American plot hatched from outside.

There were a few exceptions to this policy. When an effort was made by Palestinians to cross into the Golan, when shells were fired into the Golan and when the regime tried to send sophisticated ground to air missiles to Hezbollah, Israel reacted in a limited but effective way, thus drawing red lines. The Israeli defense establishment also acts on the assumption that the current calm could be transformed swiftly into a major crisis. Israeli analysts and policy makers are naturally concerned with Syria’s future as a country. An Islamist regime in Damascus or chaos in a fractured Syria would have immense repercussions for Israel, but these are not issues that can be dealt with now.

More recently there has been a change in US policy. The Obama Administration is responding to criticism of its failure to put an end to a humanitarian disaster and to the argument that the continuation of the crisis is playing into the hands of the Jihadis and threatens the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Signs of a more active US policy are visible. This is fine from Israel’s perspective. Jerusalem can follow the change in US policy and needs not change its own. The same watchful prudence with occasional pinpricks when red lines are crossed remains a good policy for Israel, at least for now.

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution