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Making sense of Syria

The U.S. military withdrawal from Syria will leave Israel with no perfect choices.

In tackling this subject, one is tempted to conclude that it can’t be done, or that it is simply a surrealistic version of the Rocky Horror Show. But Israel doesn’t have the luxury of dismissing what is going on to its north in such ways.

A couple of years ago, in preparing for a talk on the subject, I counted 32 groups, factions, parties, militias, and countries active in that martyrized country. The situation is not less complex now — indeed it has only gotten worse, a fact attested to by the hundreds of thousands of dead and the millions of displaced persons which have resulted from the genocidal atrocities perpetrated by the bloodiest ophthalmologist in medical history, President Assad.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria has added additional uncertainties to an already violently chaotic situation, although in typical fashion, he has partially walked back his decision, saying that the withdrawal will not be immediate and will be dependent on an agreement with Turkey on protecting the Kurds, which Ankara immediately rejected.

As of this writing, the Syrian government and its Hezbollah, Russian, and Iranian allies control most of the western half of the country; Jihadist groups control part of the north-west; ISIS is still in control of small outposts in the eastern desert; and the north-east is shared by the Kurds, various anti-government Sunni groups, and western troops. Additionally, Turkish forces threaten to intervene massively, the Israeli air force frequently launches raids, and the Gulf states are involved diplomatically and financially.

Israeli policy, pursued tenaciously since the anti-Assad uprising began in 2011, has been to avoid supporting any of the warring factions, including the government, while doing what it can with air attacks to counteract Iranian penetration of the country with equipment meant for the government or Hezbollah which could threaten Israeli security on its northern and north-eastern borders.

This policy, which has worked well so far, may prove insufficient if any one or more of the following events occur: (1) Iran, emboldened by the withdrawal of American and other Western forces, increases its involvement in Syria, with more Revolutionary Guard troops and military equipment, while continuing to strengthen Hezbollah both in Syria and in Lebanon; (2) Iran orders Hezbollah to attack Israel, perhaps simultaneously with a Hamas attack from Gaza; (3) Turkey invades eastern Syria, crushing the Kurdish and Sunni anti-government militias; (4) Russia, concerned for the survival of its naval and air bases on the Syrian coast, increases its direct military involvement in Syria.

That one or more of the potential developments mentioned in the preceding paragraph will materialize is not just likely but almost inevitable. Israeli choices in response are fairly limited. It can continue with the present policy and hope for the best, while hardening its borders with Lebanon and Syria, which has already begun with the destruction of the Hezbollah tunnels on the Lebanese frontier. Or it can intensify its involvement in the Syrian quagmire in reaction to U.S./Western withdrawal, by attempting to support the Kurdish and Sunni anti-government forces through equipment supply and air support. Nothing else remotely makes sense. Any attempt to adopt a purely defensive stance will make Iranian/Hezbollah/Hamas aggression practically a certainty. Intervention with ground troops in either Syria or Lebanon or both would meet active opposition by the Iranians, Russians and Turks, besides government forces.

As with many other challenges in the Middle East, Israel cannot eliminate the danger from the north, at least not for a long time; it can only manage the situation in such a way as to reduce the threat to acceptable proportions.

This article was originally published by Globes.