News / Middle East

Taking Sides in Syria is Hard Choice for Israel

Hikmat Massarwa (R), a member of Israel's Arab minority, attends a remand hearing at the Central District Court in Lod, near Tel Aviv Apr. 25, 2013.
Hikmat Massarwa (R), a member of Israel's Arab minority, attends a remand hearing at the Central District Court in Lod, near Tel Aviv Apr. 25, 2013.
Reuters
The dilemma Israel faces in trying to formulate a strategy on Syria two years into its civil war is symbolized by a case being heard in a small courtroom near Tel Aviv.
    
The state is prosecuting an Arab Israeli who briefly joined the rebel forces fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
    
Arrested after his return to Israel, Hikmat Massarwa, a 29-year-old baker, is accused of unlawful military training, having contacts with foreign agents and traveling to a hostile state.
    
The trial hinges on the unanswered question of who, if anyone, Israel favors in the war and if the rebels will turn out to be friends or enemies.
    
The prosecutor in Lod is trying to depict Massarwa as having aligned himself with foes of Israel, but Judge Avraham Yaakov is struggling for clarity. “There's no legal guidance regarding the rebel groups fighting in Syria,” he told a recent hearing.
    
Matters were simpler during the decades of unchallenged Assad family rule.
    
x
Technically Israeli is at war with its northern neighbor.  It captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War, built settlements and annexed the land. But belligerence was rare and the borderland has remained largely quiet for decades.
    
Assad's Syria is part of the so-called Axis of Resistance along with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, both arch enemies of the Jewish state. But Syria itself avoided open conflict.
    
Israel was slow to welcome the uprising against Assad when it broke out in March 2011. Though some leaders now call for his overthrow, planners fret about what might follow.
    
“The question for us is no longer whether it is good or not if Assad stays in power, but how do we control our interests in this divided, murky situation which could last for decades,” said Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid party, which is part of the government coalition.
    
The dilemma has grown more acute since Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaida assumed a prominent role in the rebels' battle plans.
    
Israelis believe one in 10 of the rebels is a jihadi who might turn his gun on them once Assad is gone. They also worry that Hezbollah guerrillas allied to Assad could get hold of his chemical arsenal and other advanced weaponry.
    
An Israeli tank maneuvers close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Nov. 13, 2012.An Israeli tank maneuvers close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Nov. 13, 2012.
x
An Israeli tank maneuvers close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Nov. 13, 2012.
An Israeli tank maneuvers close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Nov. 13, 2012.
So Israel has acted with restraint on Syria - shooting at its troops across the occupied Golan Heights only when hit by stray fire and playing down an Israeli airstrike on a suspected Hezbollah-bound convoy in January.
    
Officials say Israel has also been cool to Western proposals to increase aid to the Syrian rebels to help them match Assad's  superior armed forces.
    
One Israeli official told Reuters that he responds to any suggestions of a foreign military role with the question: “Do you really know on whose behalf you'll be intervening?”
    
Mixed messages
   
But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presiding over a new, right-leaning coalition and the Israeli military stretched  by keeping vigil over several fronts - including Islamist-ruled  Egypt - the message has been far from uniform.
    
Netanyahu may have contributed to this by framing Iran and its nuclear program as Israel's overriding regional concern, bolstering the case for removing Tehran's ally Assad.
    
When an Israeli intelligence analyst said last week that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons, both the Netanyahu government and its foreign allies were blindsided, according to officials.
    
Washington confirmed the Israeli assessment, thus posing a problem for U.S. President Barack Obama, who had said use of chemical arms would be a “red line”.
    
Israel's deputy foreign minister urged U.S. action in Syria - a call slapped down by more senior figures.
    
Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said it was not making any policy recommendations to Obama on Syria.
    
“We think this issue is very complex,” he told Reuters.

Several officials said Israel would be unlikely to attack Syria unilaterally unless it had evidence that chemical weapons had been handed over to Hezbollah.
    
Lacking enough of the specialized ground troops that would be needed for a search-and-destroy sweep of chemical weapons, Israel would probably have to rely on aerial bombing.
    
The Netanyhau government might even acquiesce if the rebels acquire the chemical weapons, on the assumption that the insurgents were mainstream Syrians keen to rebuild their country and loath to invite catastrophic war with Israel.
    
“If the jihadis get the chemical weapons, that's very bad, but there's still the hope that these people lack the hard-core military wherewithal, and required technical support in Syria, that would be required to use them,” one Israeli official said.
    
Indeed, Israeli planners are debating to what extent the radical Sunni Islamists fighting Assad could eventually constitute a direct threat to Israel.
    
The chief military spokesman, Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, sounded the alarm last month by saying the “Global Jihad” - meaning al Qaeda and its affiliates - wielded the most clout on the Syrian-held side of the Golan Heights.
    
Other Israeli authorities are more optimistic. The Mossad intelligence agency estimates that Syria's entrenched secularism will dilute enmity to Israel, according to one official.
    
“The Islamists there aren't all Salafists, and the Salafists aren't all al Qaeda, by any means,” the official said.
    
“We may not make peace, but I think we might find some kind of dialogue, if only for the sake of mutual deterrence.”
    
Israel has given no indication that it already has contacts with Syria's opposition. But it has coordinated closely on security with Jordan, a supporter of some rebel factions.
    
Back in Judge Yaakov's courtroom, the fate of Massarwa, who faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted, rests on whether the state can prove there is danger to Israel from the Free Syrian Army unit he stayed with for a week in March.
    
Massarwa's lawyer, Helal Jaber, hopes the logic of “my enemy's enemy is my friend” will win clemency for his client, who went to Syria via Turkey in search of a missing brother who had separately joined the rebels.
    
“The greatest democracies in the world, including the United States, are supporting the opposition to Assad,” Jaber said. “So how can Israel fault someone for doing the same?”

You May Like

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs