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 One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs