The War Next Door

AP Images/Ariel Schalit

In an age-long past—we're talking about more than two years ago—the country to Israel's northeast was ruled by a stable but despotic regime. After the battering that it took in its 1973 war with Israel, Syria carefully kept the de facto border quiet. But the regime outsourced the conflict to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that the bloodletting between the countries never really stopped. Meanwhile the ruling Assad dynasty stockpiled missiles and poison gas.

It would be hard to say that anyone in Israel is exactly nostalgic for those bad old days. Then again, it's hard to find anyone who expects better days ahead. The first thing that a local Syria-watcher or ex-general will tell you is that the Israeli government hasn't managed to decide what it wants to see happen in Syria. The second thing that she or he will say is that this doesn't really matter: Israel can't influence the outcome, and all the realistic possibilities look awful. Right now, even the meager hope for a stable regime in Damascus, no matter how anti-Israel, sounds utopian. The direct, public involvement of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war hasn't significantly changed this pessimistic perspective. Nor has the still-vague promise of the United States and other Western countries to send arms to Syrian rebels.

A reminder: Hezbollah stepped up its role this spring in Syria after months of low-profile support for the Assad regime. By late May, several thousand fighters from the Lebanese Shi'ite organization were fighting alongside government troops in the battle for the town of Al-Qusayr, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech acknowledging his group's engagement in the civil war. The town's strategic location near the Lebanese border wasn't the only reason it mattered to Hezbollah. Some 30,000 Syrian Shi'ites—members of a pro-regime minority that makes up 2 percent of Syria's population—live in nearby villages, notes a recent report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which is linked to the Israeli intelligence community. On June 5, Al-Qusayr fell to the government.

And yet, despite the victory, Hezbollah has weakened itself, Israeli analysts assert. "When you enter a civil war in a place that's not your own, you only pay a price," says Tel Aviv University professor Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria, "and Hezbollah is discovering that." Hezbollah's professed raison d'être as an armed organization—defending Lebanon from Israel—has shattered, argues Anat Kurz, research director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Nasrallah has forfeited his image as a hero in the Arab world, and the Resistance Axis of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria has come undone. Last week Hamas—a Sunni group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood—demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria. Another Hezbollah effort in Syria—training Shi'ite and Alawite militias—is "preparation for the possible collapse of the Syrian regime," says the Amit Center report. This isn't a Hezbollah vote of confidence in Bashar al-Assad. It's a forecast that greater chaos will follow his fall.

Hezbollah's escalation in Syria has, however, finally put to rest the idea reportedly entertained by some top Israeli government officials earlier in the war: that it would be best if Assad defeated the rebels because he is "the devil we know." The Assad of 2013 isn't the known quantity of 2010, before the civil war. If he survives, he could be more beholden to his erstwhile client, Hezbollah, and to their shared patron, Iran. He might, for example, be unable to prevent the Shi'ite group from using Syrian territory to launch attacks against Israel in order to restore its credentials as a "resistance" organization. Given the total sectarian collapse of Syrian society, the vendettas born of the war, any Assad victory is likely to be partial, leaving parts of the seething country outside government control. That, too, could reduce the regime's ability to keep sub-state groups from using Syrian borderlands as a base to attack Israel. And as Kurz points out, it's now morally unthinkable to prefer that Assad remain in power. "He has proved himself to be the devil of all devils," she says.

The dilemma is that it's impossible to know what a "rebel victory" would mean. "Primordial" sentiments, loyalties and divisions have surfaced, and the opposition is fragmented into groups that also oppose each other. Some, such as supporters of global jihad, have commitments external to Syria. The fall of the regime could be no more than the end of one chapter and the start of the next in years of civil war. Even if American or international intervention led to what looks like a negotiated transfer of power, "it could turn out like Iraq, where there's formally a government but the war continues," Kurz says.

If choosing between such possibilities seems impossible, Israel has one consolation: Any choice it makes is theoretical. Israel has virtually no ability to control or influence the outcome, analysts say. Indeed, Zisser's comment about the high cost of getting involved in another country's civil war can be read as the summation of Israel's disastrous attempt to determine the outcome of Lebanon's internal conflict in the 1980s. The wisest Israel policy decision now would be to utterly repress the reflex of involvement, even if one local group or another in Syria tries to provoke it with a cross-border raid or missile fire.

The borders of Syria, as marked on maps, no longer signify the area of a state. They mark the territory of conflagration. Living next door to the war is both horrifying and frightening. The temptation for Israel, as a regional power, is to think it can do something. Yet the best thing it can do is shed pride and remember that it is powerless to affect what happens beyond the border.

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