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The New “Normal” in Syria

January 14, 2019

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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President Bashar al-Assad

Peace in the North Could Mean Danger for Israel

There’s an old saying that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. What about a devil you used to know but don’t recognize any longer? That’s what has happened in Syria, where an old enemy—the regime of President Bashar al-Assad—was once at risk of being toppled in favor of new Syrian leadership, which could have been either friendlier or more dangerous to Israel. Instead, Assad’s regime has effectively triumphed in Syria’s civil war, and yet the compromises he made with Iran and Hezbollah make his country quite different from the old regime that kept a cold quasi-peace with Israel.

In short, the old “devil you know” stayed in power—but Israel doesn’t know him, or what his country is going to do, any longer.

New “Status Quo”

Dr. Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Syria, told the Mideast Update that Assad “in a sense has already won the war” insofar as he retained power in Syria. Dr. Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, said as of mid-November 2018 Assad controlled around 60% of his country.

The rebels in the two largest remaining areas are effectively supported either by Turkey—with Russia disinclined to battle there—or the United States. It appears this is the new “normal”—a relatively stable core of the country controlled by Assad and his allies that stretches to Israel’s border.

That border region is a “real concern” for Israel, according to Dr. Spyer. He noted that when the rebels controlled the area, it was effectively a “de facto buffer zone” that kept Syria and Iran away from the border. Now, there is a possibility that Iran’s agents could move into that space.

 New Risks of War

 Iran rarely strikes Israel directly, preferring to use proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. So it’s not surprising that Dr. Spyer said some in Israel believe Iran wants to recruit a new paramilitary near the Israeli–Syrian border. He said Israel is concerned enough that they have already shown determination to “prevent what looks like sort of embryonic attempts” by Iran to do so. That, in Dr. Spyer’s opinion, includes the high-profile assassination of Hezbollah strongmen Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir Kuntar in Syria.

It’s not just southern Syria that poses danger. In May of 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned long-range missiles the Iranians were “working to station in Syria.”

“Therefore, Iran needs to leave Syria altogether,” Netanyahu said.

This desire could lead to more conflict. Dr. Spyer said that presuming neither Russia nor Syria can force Iran to back down, and “if Israel is determined, as it says it is, to prevent and roll back the effort of the Iranians to entrench and consolidate themselves within Syria … and if Iran is serious, as it does appear to be, to continue to try to build that, then in a certain sense, further clashes and further confrontations seems more or less written into the situation.” Indeed, Dr. Spyer noted Israel has already spoken of additional actions in Syria.

The threat extends beyond the Iranians in Syria. Assad could be emboldened by his victories to respond to Israeli actions against Iran in Syria, according to Dr. Spyer. Then there’s Hezbollah. Dr. Spyer noted that the Syrian war has been a “mixed bag” for Hezbollah. To their harm, almost 2,000 Hezbollah members, some of whom were senior-level or otherwise valuable persons, have been killed to date.

However, the conflict has given Hezbollah fighters the opportunity to fight in a foreign country, including urban warfare. That experience could challenge the Israeli military in a future conflict.

“Those people are a pretty formidable cohort, and arguably those are people who have experienced combat at a level of intensity at which you’d be hard-pressed to find many people in the Israel Defense Forces facing them who’ve experienced anything similar,” Dr. Spyer said.

In general, Dr. Spyer noted that Israel’s enemies will “have more time in the day” to focus on Israel since Assad’s rule is more secure.

New Need for Quiet

The Syrian flag

But war isn’t necessarily on the horizon. According to Dr. Spyer, Iran is working to build up their power in Syria, and there is evidence they are even trying to change some Syrian demographics and culture to make them more pro-Iranian.

Dr. Spyer said he believes this will fall short because Iran tends to take the long-view approach “in terms of decades,” so there is benefit for Iran to keep things relatively calm in Syria as they dig in. They also have motive to “preserve” and “strengthen” the land corridor, effectively linking Iran to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Dr. Spyer also noted the scale of the forces at play in Syria—the nation of Iran and the State of Israel—means that a full-scale war would be “much bigger” than the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah. That is another incentive to keep the peace, not to mention Iran’s interest in keeping Assad in power as their dependent.

Nonetheless, per Dr. Spyer, the old Syria ruled by Assad, who was “effectively deterred” by Israel—that devil they knew—is gone. Assad may not be able to control Iran in Syria, where Dr. Spyer noted even a small action could lead to a greater conflict with Israel.

“Overall, I think it’s more of a threat [than before],” Dr. Spyer said. “…That doesn’t mean to say that what’s coming is some kind of nightmare scenario, it’s not. But it is a much more volatile, unpredictable, fluid environment to that of Syria prior to March 2011, so to speak, when the uprising began. I think there is a great deal [that is] less predictable, a great number of complex and new challenges.”

Indeed, you might call it a “devil they no longer know.”

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