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Syria Deeply Asks: Should Israel be more concerned about instability in Syria than it is about Iran’s nuclear program?

As a regular feature, inspired by your questions about the Syria conflict, we’ve rounded up answers from some of the top minds in our network. If you’d like to submit a question for us to tackle send it to <[email protected]>.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Question: Should Israel be more concerned about instability in Syria than it is about Iran’s nuclear program?

Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

They are concerned with both, but they have definite reasons to be concerned about the situation in Syria. A fragmented state or failed state on their border would be more dangerous to them and the stability of the region at large than the military mukhabarat [secret police]-ruled entity, which they have known for so long.

Israel has been talking about the nuclear threat for at least 10 years. And the international committee has been taking it seriously with negotiations and sanctions. Obama has taken it as a responsibility that [Iran does] not get a bomb. So [Israel] can rely on others. And I don’t think any government in Israel would want to start a war.

On the other hand, the international community is not taking care of Syria. Ironically, losing [Bashar al-]Assad for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would be like losing [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. Mubarak was not a friend, but head of a state with a stable peace agreement. Israel has been living with the Assads for 40 years, and they have been quite reliable. Nothing makes policymakers more concerned than when stability vanishes. Chemical weapons, the presence of al-Qaida or having Iran and Hezbollah weakened if the regime falls are details – the big picture is you have more instability on your borders.

The recent phone call from Israel to Turkey (in which Netanyahu made an official apology for the deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship) was a big step. It was also a result of personalized diplomacy from Barack Obama. But he only succeeded because the Turkish PM and the Israeli PM were happy to have someone get them down from the tree. If everything around you is in turbulence, it’s good to have at least one reliable partner in the region. In the end, these are states that act like states, and they are stable elements in the region. That is very different from Jabhat al-Nusra or Hezbollah, which are not bound by international agreements, or by a cease-fire, or by a disengagement agreement on the Golan [Heights].

Aaron David Miller, Middle East analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center:

We are witnessing the end of a regional order without a real clear sense of what is going to replace it. The 1970s to the last several years was marked by concentrated power in the hands of Arab states led by acquiescent and adversarial leaders: the acquiescent being the Mubaraks and kings of the region, and the adversarial being the Assads and Gadhafis of the region. The Arab world is becoming a highly decentralized place, and with that comes the end of authoritarianism. This carries consequences for the Israelis.

The Syrian conflict has already demonstrated spillover in the Golan Heights. There are obvious threats of chemical weapons, decentralization and the longer-term issue of transfer of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Hezbollah would retain direct control of long-range rockets and air defense. It’s a paradox, because the Israelis are more worried about the near term, and the immediate threat that Syria poses is in some respects far less. They should be worried about Syria in the long term.

The broader strategic problem for Israel is Iran. Israel would, and has, consented to the Obama administration, which has one central priority when it comes to the application of military force and the importance of lining up allies: the nuclear threat. And they are not going to get the Russians and the Chinese to cooperate on Syria and Iran – pick one.

As long as Israel can deal with the short-term threats: the Golan, preventing weapons from going to Hezbollah, and the loosing of chemical weapons, they will go along with the Obama administration’s policy. Israel is far more concerned with their capacity to deal with the Iran issue.

Wayne White, former senior U.S. Department of ****State ****intelligence official and expert at the Washington- based Middle East Institute:

Syria clearly poses the more immediate challenge to Israel than the ongoing international nuclear stand off with Iran. Although so far limited to scattered firefights involving Israeli forces in the Golan demilitarized zone, and various elements on the Syrian side, as well as one Israeli air strike into Syria, potentially far larger challenges lay ahead.

An earlier Israeli strike against a Syrian facility along the road between Syria and Lebanon was a warning to Bashar and Co. that Israel will react forcefully to any suspected attempt to shift weaponry to Lebanese Hezbollah. At the top of the list of concerns are portions of Syria’s robust chemical weapons arsenal. Such transfers could well occur if the situation in Syria deteriorates, to the point at which the regime has its back to the wall and little to lose by doing so, in a sort of last gesture of defiance against Israel and the US.

The far larger issue involving the fate of Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles profoundly concerns Israel. Increasingly, leading anti-regime rebel elements are dominated by Islamic extremists with unknown intentions, should they secure a sizeable portion of this weaponry. Options if the government appears on the brink of losing control of these weapons for either Israel, the U.S. or both could include especially devastating air strikes aimed at neutralizing much of these stockpiles, or even selected commando attacks to secure them one way or another.  Neither option is very appealing because of the practical difficulties involved.

Against this welter of concerns along Israel’s northern frontiers, many of which could develop with little warning, the long-term threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program pales.

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