In the last few days Israel has picked up the pace of its shelling and bombardment of Syrian government troop positions in the border zone of the Quneitra province. This suggests that Israel may have decided to make a «last-ditch effort» to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Considering that all the American troops in the region have been placed on alert and are actively seeking an excuse to attack Bashar al-Assad’s army, the idea that the US and Israel might be taking orchestrated steps to escalate the Syrian conflict cannot be ruled out.
Israel’s leaders have thus far proclaimed a policy of neutrality and nonintervention in the Syrian war, although they have not concealed their sympathy for the pro-Western faction of the opposition and have offered them certain types of aid. Israel has admitted injured militants to its hospitals for treatment. It has provided them with material support, including some confirmed, modest shipments of military supplies. Along with the Americans, Israeli advisers have trained Syrian recruits inside Jordan, contributing to the work of the joint Military Operations Center near Amman.
To a large extent, Israel’s blueprint for the future evolution of the Syrian crisis has been developed from the perspective of a «final solution» to the problem of the Golan Heights. Israel’s expert community has often surmised that the disintegration of Syria would be objectively beneficial for Israel, since it would expedite international recognition for the annexation of the Golan Heights. It can be assumed that the highest government officials have also been motivated by these considerations. And the idea of self-determination for Syria’s Druze has seemingly opened up the fast track to this destination: it’s been suggested that if several states were created within Syria, then in the interests of self-preservation the Druze in in that country would also be forced to form their own political unit. And because that entity would be impractical on its own, it might want to be «reunited» with the Druze who live on the other side of the Golan Heights, on land held by Israel, with the idea being that they could all join up together. Israel would thus not only legitimize the land it currently occupies, but also expand it. Despite the fantastical nature of these plans, they have attracted influential supporters from among the Druze who live in Israel (near Haifa on Mount Carmel) and hold Israeli citizenship.
One prominent Druze politician in particular has been committed to this position, Likud member Ayoob Kara, who has served as the deputy speaker of the Knesset and held ministerial posts in several different Israeli governments. He has stated that «if the Druze in Syria are threatened with destruction, Israel will not be able to stand aside». A significant expansion of his country’s Druze community would open up new horizons for him. The only problem is that there aren’t too many Druze on either side of the Golan Heights who share such sentiments. Nonetheless, it’s not easy for Israeli politicians to abandon this dream. The best outcome for them would be for Syria to splinter on its own, without any visible intervention by Israel, a country that has strained relations with all its neighbors. This, more than anything, is the best explanation for its proclamations of self-restraint throughout the war. And back when the Islamic State (which is banned in Russia) was maximizing the expanse of its conquered territory, Israel was clearly concerned about the prospect of IS showing up on its own doorstep. There was even speculation in the press that perhaps the regime of Bashar al-Assad «wasn’t so bad after all». That was the period when the Russians and the Israelis were cooperating as much as possible in regard to Syria. However, as the IS threat recedes further into the background and Syria stays in one piece, there is apparently a temptation to «set some events in motion».
The current wave of Israeli strikes against Syria has also had symbolic significance. They precisely coincided with the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, an event attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where even he found himself in the thick of the shelling. In a speech before the Israeli military there, he declared bluntly, «The Golan is ours and the Golan will always be ours. The Golan is ours because it belonged to our forefathers, and because it was taken back by us due to Syrian aggression». This is, to be frank, a rather unique interpretation of history and recent events.
The Israeli army is also providing supporting fire to the Army of Muhammad, a coalition that includes both «moderate» opposition fighters from the FSA as well as al-Qaeda loyalists from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – the former Jabhat al-Nusra. That coalition recently announced the launch of a military operation with the pretentious code name of «The Road to Damascus». Every resolution and international agreement stipulates that such terrorist organizations should be destroyed, not supported. The recent strike near Quneitra leveled by Russian Aerospace Defense Forces from Hmeymim against the positions held by this coalition has shown that they are legitimate targets. Afterward Israel neither protested this action nor took any countermeasures. And the government army, taking advantage of the aftermath of the Russian bombing, fended off the Army of Muhammad and, according to the latest reports, has fully rectified the situation on the Israeli border.
A few Israeli commentators, Yossi Melman in particular, believe that this will be all there is to the matter. However, in the last few months some pundits in Israel have all simultaneously recommended that the country’s leaders expand Israel’s role in the Syrian war. For example, the respected Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) has released a report, titled «Syria’s New Map and New Actors: Challenges and Opportunities for Israel». The authors of the paper openly admit that the agreement reached between the US and the Syrian opposition in 2016 has been a «source of concern» for Israel, because of its insistence that «no part of the national territory [of Syria] shall be ceded». The same document states that «the people of Syria remain committed to the restoration of the occupied Golan Heights by peaceful means». The report claims that these sort of strategies coming from the Western coalition have been one of the reasons that Israel has viewed that group’s actions cautiously.
However, the authors feel that the time has come for the country’s leaders to «reevaluate the traditional regional rules of the game». Between the «devil that it knows» (the existing regime) and the unknowable future should opposition forces seize the reins of power, it is crucial to choose what kind of reality is being shaped, i.e., to wield influence over Syria’s future appearance. The report maintains that there is a need to more actively intervene in events and draw upon the traditional and deeply-rooted ethnic and religious groups in southern Syria that have some sort of ties to the FSA. The justification: there are an awful lot of foreign actors meddling in Syrian affairs as it is. The conflict zone has allegedly already been divvied up between the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Israel can’t just sit back and watch what they’re doing there. Among the possible steps listed by the authors: significantly stepping up the missile and air strikes against the regime’s military targets and communication lines; cooperating with Jordan to establish a no-fly zone over southern Syria; supporting opposition forces that are loyal to Israel; recruiting the Druze population to work with the Israelis; playing a more active role in American operations in southern Syria; expanding cyber-warfare attacks; and reformulating new, more assertive «red lines» for Damascus.
Such measures can hardly be seen as productive or well-timed. The Syrian army is already on an unstoppable roll and can’t be checked without a full-scale invasion. But that would entail serious military operations on a strategic level, requiring approval from both the US Congress and the Israeli Knesset. And the prospects for that type of authorization seem somewhat iffy at the moment. Such a turn of events would lead to a serious crisis for the entire system of international relations, although it should be acknowledged that right now the situation seems to be unfolding in accordance with a dangerous scenario.