It was expected that the popular movements led by young people in some Arab countries 11 years ago, known as the Arab Spring, would constitute an opportunity for Israel to get rid of its traditional opponents, especially the Assad regime in Syria. But the course of events and their complexities over more than an entire decade showed exactly the opposite.
In 2011, Israel early on resolved the controversy between two prominent wings in its army’s military staff: the first calling for intervention in Syria and exploiting the events to overthrow Assad and replace him with a new regime, and another wing that opposed this approach.
Israel decided not to interfere and to follow a policy of disassociation, in contrast to most countries in the region and international powers, and contrary to all expectations, preferring the Assad regime even though it had an opportunity to get rid of it and replace it with a regime far from Iranian hegemony.
This was confirmed by Itamar Rabinovitch, head of the Israeli delegation that negotiated with the regime of Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father in the 1990s. Rabinovitch said Israel had two main options. The first was to intervene in the intifada (uprising) by helping the moderate opposition and providing humanitarian aid to the population. The second was to step aside and ensure that Israel’s vital interests were protected, but it preferred not to get involved militarily with either side of the conflict in Syria.
Assad’s escape and impunity for perpetrating the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 was an indication of Israel’s unwillingness to topple the regime in Syria, and instead of holding the criminal accountable, Washington and Moscow wrapped up the crime against humanity and ironically “punished” Assad by keeping him in power after he allegedly handed over his chemical weapons, which was an Israeli demand.
To be consistent with its interests in preserving its “national security,” Israel fought Iran on the Syrian soil and narrowed down its handling of the Syrian file to just fighting the Iranian military presence to stop the Revolutionary Guards from approaching the borders of the occupied Golan Heights for fear of reproducing an experience similar to that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Syria.
The Israeli military activity in Syria increased after the Russian intervention in 2015 which turned the scales in favor of the Assad regime. In coordination with the Russians, Israel has been launching periodic and frequent air attacks targeting military bases operated by the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian militias in Syria. It is clear now that there is a tacit understanding that brings together Russia and Israel allowing the latter to launch attacks on certain targets.
The Israeli attacks do not aim to destabilize the regime. Rather, they are launched in order to warn Assad not to allow the Iranians to approach the post-1967 war borders or to use Syria as a land corridor to transport weapons and precision missiles from Tehran to southern Lebanon.
Israel also sees in the developments in Syria after 2011 a way out of any obligation to give up the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for a normalization agreement with a fragmented and weak country. It has turned the page on the old negotiations (which started in 1993) for withdrawal from the Syrian occupied territories in exchange for signing a peace agreement.
Israel’s preference for Assad is also due to the fact that it has already been dealing with his regime for a long time. It “knows and controls” it, especially since the front between Syria and Israel has remained remarkably calm for about five decades. For Israel, any other new government in Syria would be unknown, making it hard to predict its actions.