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Book review'Syria as we know it is gone'

10 years of savagery: How Israel navigated Syria’s demise and troubling rebirth

Israel’s bitter enemy is no more, argue two Israeli authors, but Assad’s reconstructed regime, backed by Russia and Iran, poses new challenges

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A man passes a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad with Arabic that reads, 'Congratulations victory,' on September 30, 2019, while crossing the border into Syria at the newly opened crossing between the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria's Boukamal, Syria. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
A man passes a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad with Arabic that reads, 'Congratulations victory,' on September 30, 2019, while crossing the border into Syria at the newly opened crossing between the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria's Boukamal, Syria. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

The lasting images from the decade of 2011-2020 may well be those of gruesome, almost incomprehensible violence, beamed into Western homes as a macabre spectacle.

Ten years ago, in March 2011, protesters in Syria’s cities took to the streets to demand government reforms and civil rights. The demonstrations quickly turned into a full-blown armed uprising against the Bashar Assad regime.

In the years that followed, scenes of shocking, unforgiving brutality became almost rote. But what arguably most powerfully captured the attention of the West was a series of videos by the radical Sunni Islamic State organization showing grisly executions by beheadings, burnings and drownings.

IS spread their expertly produced clips through social media, reaching around the world, enhancing their recruitment efforts while dominating news cycles in the West.

Many of IS’s targets in Syria were journalists or aid workers from Western countries, and the scenes of staged but very real cruelty and gore beamed into Western homes — juxtaposed with the staged Hollywood violence most Americans were used to seeing on TV shows like “Game of Thrones,” with its graphic depictions of gore and rape — turned a faraway war into a local threat.

The images of savagery reached Israelis’ screens as well, but they had another means of witnessing the unfolding disaster in Syria. One could simply drive up one of the many volcanic mounds on the Golan Heights and look east. Plumes of smoke drifted skyward and the clap of not-too-distant explosions reverberated from the Syrian side of the plateau as jihadists, regime forces, and foreign militaries battled each other along Israel’s northeastern border.

“Syrian Requiem” by Itamar Rabinovich and Carmit Valensi.

For Israel, nothing about the war was far away, and even as the country resisted getting sucked into the Syrian quicksand, it eventually found it had no choice but to navigate around the war’s multitudinous facets and its reshaping of the region.

“Israel didn’t grasp the consequences of the chaotic environment in Syria… Israel didn’t grasp in an appropriate manner the extent of the Iranian influence in Syria,” said Carmit Valensi, who has co-authored a new book on the war with Itamar Rabinovitch, a former Israeli ambassador to the US.

A decade into the conflict, Israel can point to significant successes in its policies managing a brutal conflict being waged on its borders. But as the war appears to wind down, threats for Israel still loom, even as attention turns to where Syria, and the region, go from here.

A requiem for what?

“Syrian Requiem: The Civil War and Its Aftermath,” makes a bold claim in its very title. It rests on the idea that something fundamentally Syrian has slid into memory, never to return. “Syria has been transformed beyond recognition,” said Valensi, head of the Syrian research program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Syria as we know it — Syria of the last 30 years that was constructed by Hafez Assad as a strong, coherent state, a very important regional actor, and to some extent even an international actor — doesn’t exist now,” concurred Rabinovitch, who in the past was chief Israeli negotiator with Syria.

The country is in ruins from a decade of civil war that killed a half million people, displaced half the population and wiped out the economy. Foreign troops — Russian, Iranian, Turkish — control significant parts of the country. Semi-autonomous Kurds hold another 20% of Syrian territory.

Syria has disappeared in other ways as well. Once an important Arab cultural center for plays, literature, and movies, Damascus is now denuded of its leading artists, who have fled their troubled homeland for Europe and beyond.

The image of Syria that occupied such an important place in the minds of Israeli leaders is also gone. Since Israel’s founding, Syria had been one of its most serious threats. It played a central role in most of Israel’s major conflicts and continued to fight Israel even after Jordan and Egypt understood they could not defeat the Jewish state militarily. Until 2011, it represented a major conventional threat: the adversary against which the IDF designed much of its force.

In this photo released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center right, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the strategic town of Habeet, in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria, October 22, 2019. (Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency via AP)

Syria also held the potential to solve Israel’s security challenges, at least in the minds of decision-makers in Jerusalem. In the 1980s and 1990s, as Israeli forces battled Palestinian and then Hezbollah terrorists — and occasionally Syrian troops — in southern Lebanon, Israel looked to Syria as the key to achieving quiet on its northern border. In many ways, the IDF was playing defense with the expectation that the politicians would eventually sign a peace deal with Syria, under whose terms Hafez Assad would see to it that Hezbollah disarmed.

Syria is gone, argue the authors, but what remains? And what kind of neighbor will Israel face moving forward?

An arena for conflict

In his 1965 work “The Struggle for Syria,” British author Patrick Seale portrayed Syria as a weak state that unwillingly served as an arena for regional and global conflicts, though he may have overstated the case.

According to Rabinovich, “Syria under Hafez Assad was a powerful regional actor. It controlled Lebanon. It meddled in Palestinian politics, in Jordanian politics, it projected into the Arabian peninsula. It was courted by both Moscow and Washington. It was very successful in that regard.”

Still the Assad regime had feet of clay, resting on the support of the minority Alawite community.

Screen capture from a video showing US-Israeli citizen Steven Sotloff with an Islamic State terrorist. (JTA)

Like his father, Bashar Assad elevated family members to insulate his power — a younger, more modern generation, but one seen by many Syrians as more rapacious in amassing wealth.

The Assad family’s gravest challenge came with the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region, reaching Syria in March 2011. His response to the initially peaceful protests was to unleash security forces to snuff them out. Instead, protests grew, turning later into an armed insurgency backed by Turkey, the US and Gulf Arab nations. His military fragmented.

With his army nearing collapse, Assad opened his territory to Russia’s and Iran’s militaries and their proxies. Cities were pulverized. He was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people and killing or jailing opponents en masse. Millions fled to neighboring countries, Europe or beyond.

Today, Syria does match Seale’s description, as Iran, Turkey, Russia, Israel, and the US — and affiliated militias — jockey for position there.

Carmit Valensi. (courtesy: INSS)

The collapse of the Syrian state was not only a problem for Syrians. Its effects reverberated beyond its borders. Millions of Syrians fled the country, creating a refugee crisis in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and further afield. In Europe, a bitter debate over elemental issues like Europe’s identity, the nation-state, and human rights broke out as Syrian refugees streamed in. The violence threatened to spill over into Jordan and Israel, and leading outlets — the New York Times, BBC, The New Yorker — asked whether the Syrian civil war marked the end of the Middle East created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the region into separate states.

Israel, though, wanted no part of it.

“The policy adopted and announced by the Netanyahu government kept Israel on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict,” write Rabinovich and Valensi, “with three important exceptions: Israel would be prepared to offer discreet humanitarian help; it would fire back in the event of firing or shelling into its territory; and it would interdict (without taking credit or responsibility) in order to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapon systems to Hezbollah, or the fall of weapons of mass destruction (chemical or biological) into terrorist hands.”

As for the Assad regime, Israel deemed it preferable to stick with the devil they knew — the phrase prime minister Ariel Sharon used in 2005 to convince George W. Bush not to push for regime change in Syria. The Syrian border had been Israel’s quietest since 1973, and should the regime fall, Israeli leaders reasoned, it would be replaced with Sunni jihadists who would be far more aggressive.

Israel was also still dealing with the trauma of the Lebanon occupation, in which its attempts to intervene in the domestic politics of an Arab country led to an 18-year quagmire that left hundreds of IDF soldiers dead.

As the Syrian war ground on, that view began to change.

“I think in the last few years Israel started to realize that it wasn’t that accurate to assume that Bashar Assad is a better option for us,” said Rabinovich. “First of all, from a strategic point of view, Israel today acknowledges the fact that Bashar is the one to allow the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. And as long as it’s up to him, he will not do anything in order to remove the Iranian presence.”

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Nov. 9, 2016. (Andrew Tobin/JTA)

Though Israel had been striking targets in Syria throughout the conflict — including a January 2015 strike on a convoy near Quneitra that killed an Iranian general and senior Hezbollah commanders — in 2016 it stepped up operations against Iranian assets in Syria.

The attacks were part of Israel’s so-called “campaign between the wars,” a strategy designed to damage Iranian efforts to supply precision weapons to proxies and establish itself on Israel’s borders, albeit without allowing tensions to snowball into open war.

Israel’s attacks were “too little, too late,” lamented Valensi. Iran was already deeply established in Syria, playing a leading role in its culture, religious affairs, economy and military.

By the end of 2016, the war had reached its turning point. Regime forces captured Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and it became clear that Assad, and his Iranian guests, were there to stay.

Assad’s survival meant that Israel had to prepare for a revived regime with firm Russian and Iranian backing, which sought to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights.

Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Golan Heights look out across the border with Syria, on July 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

Entrench warfare

The US also initially sought to stay out of the conflict, though Washington’s bumbling approach to Assad’s use of chemical weapons ended up bolstering Assad, Valensi argues.

In August 2012, US president Barack Obama declared, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

The threat appeared to be working until August 2013, when regime forces attacked the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons.

After making the case publicly and to Congress for a military strike, Obama backed off, and instead accepted Syrian acquiescence to a US-Russian deal meant to have Assad hand over his chemical weapons stockpile.

“I think it was one of the most crucial American decisions with regards to the Syrian conflict,” said Valensi. “It had a tremendous impact on the course of events in the next few years. I think that when Obama decided to ignore his own red lines and refrain from penalizing Assad for the massive use of chemical weapons on civilians, that was one of the most important turning points of the Syrian crisis. That eventually paved the way for Russian military intervention, and even more, inflicted a deadly blow in the Syrian opposition.”

Russian military vehicles drive through the town of Darbasiyah in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province along the Syria-Turkey border on February 24, 2020. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

It took IS gains in Syria and Iraq for the US to get involved. Washington intervened in 2014 with airstrikes on Syrian soil as the head of a global coalition against the jihadists.

A year later, Moscow waded in on Assad’s side in a move that would turn the tide of the war. Russia, which has an important naval base in Syria, began its direct military involvement in September 2015, when it deployed air and ground assets to the country to prevent the regime’s collapse. The move followed a visit to Moscow by former IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who reportedly offered Iranian boots on the ground, along with allied Iraqi and Lebanese fighters, to partner with Russian air power.

“Putin was seeking to demonstrate Russian capabilities, and its status as a global military actor and a regional mediator,” explained Rabinovich. “Moscow is mostly interested in stabilizing the situation in Syria, and is also eager to promote a political settlement and reconstruction with an aim to secure long-term air and naval bases.”

The Russia-Iran relationship, though effective in saving Assad, became strained with time.

“Moscow became increasingly uneasy with Iran’s aggressive campaign to embed itself militarily in Syria in 2017 and 2018,” they write. “This campaign mitigated Russia’s effort to obtain stability in Syria and provoked Israeli countermeasures. Russia tolerated Israel’s military campaign against the construction of an Iranian military infrastructure in Syria but grew increasingly uneasy with it as well.” Russia forced Iran to pull many of its troops and proxies back from the Israeli border.

There were also clashes between pro-Iranian and pro-Russian militias in Syria. As reconstruction ramps up, Iran and Russia are in competition over economic agreements with the Syrian regime.

“Once Assad had won the main military conflict, Russian reliance on Iranian boots on the ground definitely declined,” said Valensi. “Moscow became increasingly uneasy with the Iranian plan and vision to entrench itself in Syria, and Russia is basically seeking to stabilize the situation. And here Iran became more of a burden than an asset in Russia’s perspective.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) attend a press conference after meeting in Tehran, on September 7, 2018.(Mikhail KLIMENTYEV/AFP/SPUTNIK )

Just as Seale described Syria as a frail country yoked to the conflicts of more powerful actors, Israel too is only a player in Syria to the extent that Russia and the US allow it the freedom to operate.

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to navigate the war by remaining in the US’s corner while also finding common ground to maintain a working relationship with Russia, despite several tense periods, the authors argue.

But those challenges will only grow as a new Syria emerges, including an army that is reconstituted with Russian and Iranian help.

For now, Assad is not interested in a direct conflict with Israel. Jerusalem’s concern, the authors argue, should be in maintaining military freedom of action to prevent Iranian entrenchment and transfer of weapons.

“The only leverage Israel has is through the US or Russia,” said Rabinovich. “We should definitely acknowledge our limited ability to shape the political situation in Syria.”

AP and AFP contributed to this report. 

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