Could Syria’s civil war could be good for Israel – and America? That’s the view some Israeli commentators have suggested lately. For them, the thinking goes like this: As long as Israel’s neighbors and enemies are occupied fighting each other, their attention will be diverted from Israel.
But finding merit for Israel in the continuation of Syria’s civil war is not just morally reprehensible; it also reveals a level of shortsightedness and misunderstanding of the new regional dynamics. Stopping the bloodshed and allowing the Syrian people to restore peace and stability in their country should be seen as a key interest of all regional actors, including Israel.
When political protests against the Assad regime first erupted in Syria, the reaction from the Israeli government was overall ambivalence.
On the one hand, pro-status quo analysts argued that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad was both a predictable and relatively risk-averse neighbor, and that his triumph over the opposition forces would be a positive outcome for Israel. A second school of thought argued that Israel has a strong interest in seeing a change in the status quo in Syria, as this would deliver a hard blow against two of Israel’s main regional foes, Iran and Hezbollah.
As time passed and the conflict escalated in a bloody and destructive civil war, the anti-Assad camp gradually gained more strength and influence both in the political and in the public debate in Israel.
Lately, a third Israeli view on Syria’s conflict has gained some (limited) traction, voiced by some commentators and among the general population – that Israel’s interests would be served by the continuation of the civil war. With the once mighty Syrian army deadlocked in a fight against the rebel forces, and with both Iran and Hezbollah deeply invested in the conflict, Israel can “sit back and relax” while its main enemies get weaker by the day.
Applied on a regional level, this theory argues that the rise in internal divisions and strife in the region should be seen as a positive development for Israel.
This poorly disguised gloating over the growing level of regional violence and instability in the Arab world is deeply disturbing in several ways.
First and foremost, these statements reveal both a lack of empathy and a shameful callousness to human suffering. Syria’s conflict has left more than 100,000 dead (with at least 6,500 of them being children), more than 1.9 million refugees, 4.5 million internally displaced persons, and more than 7 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. There is just no possible political or geostrategic interest that could justify arguing in favor of the continuation of the status quo.
What is more, this type of analysis reveals a deep flaw often present in mainstream Israeli political thinking on the Middle East: the misguided notion that Israel is an island capable of completely isolating itself from the evolving regional dynamics.
This is simply not true: Violence and instability in Syria are not self-contained. The civil war has already deeply destabilized Lebanon, and to a lesser extent Jordan. The more the conflict continues and escalates, the more likely it will have an increasingly direct impact on Israel.
The negative impact of the Syrian civil war on Jordan should also worry Israeli decisionmakers, because – given the current instability in Egypt – Jordan and its peace treaty are now more crucial to Israel than ever.
More immediately and directly, the continuation of the Syrian civil war is creating a second “Sinai scenario.” In other words, the lack of central control and lawlessness that at times have characterized Israel’s border with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula is manifesting itself along the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights border with Syria as well.
Indeed, the longer the conflict continues, the more the country becomes divided, unstable, militarized, and akin to a failed state characterized by a lack of central authority and the proliferation of weapons and armed groups.
These risks are further heightened by another trend in Syria’s ongoing civil war: the increasingly sectarian and regionally polarizing nature of the conflict. While the protests in Syria were initially not sectarian in their nature or demands, the convergence of Mr. Assad’s strategy of “divide and conquer,” the influx of foreign jihadist fighters, and the meddling role played by regional powers have now transformed the war into a sectarian one.
In turn, this makes the conflict more intractable, more prone to attract extremist elements, and one with greater regional impact and involvement. The flooding of foreign jihadists to Syria is yet another reason why the continuation of the status quo hurts both regional stability in general as well as Israel specifically. The breakdown of central control and proliferation of radical elements is especially worrisome given Syria’s sophisticated non-conventional arsenal.
Given the risks associated with the continuation of the Syrian conflict, and considering the dire humanitarian situation, Israelis would be well-advised to refrain from wishing the war to continue.
Israel should use its diplomatic influence to make clear to its allies the staggering costs of allowing the conflict to drag on. While Israel should continue to refrain from becoming involved in the conflict at a military level, as this would only add additional fuel to the Syrian fire, the country should take further steps to increase its humanitarian response to the crisis.
Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group. She is the author of “Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.