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

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    Why Islamic State Is Down But Not Out

    Despite loss of territory, group’s ferocious attacks over past three months seen as testimony to its continued durability and resourcefulness

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora