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 VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs