Israel’s knotty perspective in Syrian challenge

Israel’s knotty perspective in Syrian challenge

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

TEL AVIV — The ugliness in Syria grows as the world continues to wonder why such a bloodbath against civilians can be allowed to continue. NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and others repeatedly call for more serious humanitarian — as well as military — action to end the slaughter while the world wrings its symbolic hands.

The situation in Syria is not comparable to Libya’s recent overhaul: A conclusion would not be quick, there is no apparent leader in the wings, and the world does not get the finest crude oil in return for making peace. Furthermore, there are clearly some who do not seem to have the same compelling sense of outrage to try to end the bloodletting, while those who are truly outraged have neither the capacity nor the willingness to call things as they are. Or, as some Israelis have remarked, some nations and peoples do not view their obligation to prevent the destruction of human life as others do.

All of this does not get the world any closer to a solution. Given the failure of the UN, of the mission undertaken by Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan, of the mediating force, and any moral indignation brought to bear, are there any actions that can be instituted that might bring about a regime change in Syria?

When you now add the Israeli perspective, you have an even bigger conundrum.

The Israeli angle is a complex one. Israel sees all parties to the conflict as personal enemies; outside groups only contribute further to the instability as Syria emerges clearly as Iran’s surrogate in conventional warfare terms, as well as for all Sunni Muslims. Fed by Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as Iran, the Syrian military now has a multitude of weapons suppliers.

On the other hand, Israel has staring it in the face the painful memory of a world standing by during the Holocaust. All Jews recognize that the bloodletting in Syria is another example of a bystander world allowing people to kill others at will. This time the carnage is on Israel’s very border. Unfortunately on the moral side and fortunately on the realpolitik side, Israel today is a sovereign state that cannot jeopardize its national interests in the name of moral correctness. For some Israelis, this is the most difficult lesson to accept; they do still worry about the “next time.”

Consequently, the only reasonable action to take must be to demand that an Arab Muslim force take the lead publicly in humanitarian as well as military terms. The West can arm those forces and supply the human needs, but this force must be exerted by the Arabs themselves. The Israelis argue that it is a risk to bring more Arab military forces into closer proximity to Israel, but if they were to invest in creating such a situation, it just might be a harbinger for a regional attitude shift.

At the same time, Israelis recognize that such a scenario could have precisely the opposite effect, and Israel could suddenly find itself with a new and much more complex situation on its northern borders. While the Golan Heights has remained remarkably stable and quiet since 1973, multilateral Arab forces engaged on the Golan could present a very destabilizing influence on the Syrian-Israel front. Given Hizbullah’s active presence in Lebanon, it is quite likely that Syrian activity would only excite and engage anti-Israel forces there. This situation could be even more fluid and dynamic than the existence of a nuclear-capable Iran, which, while grossly destabilizing, is still in all likelihood months away. A Syrian explosion spilling over in various directions within the Arab world might happen much sooner. From the West’s perspective — and especially given the intense, competitive fall election in the United States — such an event could have dramatic consequences.

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