Jerusalem’s view of the Syrian conflict has always taken a different angle from the global perspective due to the conflict’s geographical proximity to Israel and its consequences on the regional balance of powers.
At the beginning of the war, Western diplomacy was largely focused on the possibility of regime change in Damascus in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the departure of dictators Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Regime change in Syria could have opened a new era of relations with a nation of strategic importance in the Middle East.
Instead, Israel instinctively saw the prospect of a Syrian conflict as opening a Pandora’s box. Syria was perceived as a major threat, Hezbollah was bound to be involved and this brought unwelcome possibilities for Jerusalem at different levels: added pressure in the Golan Heights, the opportunity for Hezbollah to seize new weapons and friction at the Lebanese border.
After six years of war, regime change in Syria has proven to be ever more difficult, and with different scenarios. Hezbollah’s attention has been completely absorbed by Lebanese politics and Syria, thus providing no real threat at the Israeli-Lebanese border. This is why the Syrian conflict has never played a central role in Israeli public opinion or in its political agenda. Syria is a war between two enemies of Israel: the Assad family and a wider range of Islamist movements, including the Islamic State. Israel is not rooting for a winner as long as they are weakening each other. Israel’s military action in Syria has been limited to strikes that degraded Hezbollah’s capacities. Moreover, Israel, unlike its Western allies and counterparts, has received no influx of refugees resulting from the Syrian conflict.
In a geopolitical context, Israel’s perspective on Syria is changing as the latest phases of the war have seen a growing involvement of Iran and especially Russia.
Iran is still perceived as a greater threat to Israel than the Islamic State, which does not have ballistic missiles. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always been vocal on his perception of the threat posed by Iran as a dangerous sponsor of terrorism and its appetite to become a regional power. Due to the nuclear agreement, Tehran gained momentum with Western diplomacies. But now, with the Syrian conflict moving forward, Netanyahu could rekindle his argument to ice out Iran’s ambitions and convince the Trump administration of the necessity for a new set of sanctions.
Russia’s involvement in the conflict, on the contrary, could be of greater impact for both Israel and Palestine. Russia was successful in securing its strategic interests in the region before the new US president took office, thus helping the Assad regime retake the city of Aleppo. This was a major victory over the opposition and of symbolic meaning.
Israel’s strategic vision is also closely focused on the future relationship between the Trump administration and Russia. And on this account, Israel has no interest in forcing hands. In fact, Netanyahu, speaking to his party, recently urged caution. He was also able to persuade Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party to postpone a vote on the annexation of the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim until his meeting with President Donald Trump.
For the Palestinians, the importance of the Syrian conflict is totally different and goes back to the core of their cause: Many Palestinians were displaced in Syrian refugee camps and the conflict has just aggravated their predicament. Palestinians in Syria were among the first and most significant casualties of the civil war, but Palestinian politics in the West Bank and Gaza have also been affected. In the first stages of the civil war many commentators underlined a dilemma for Palestinians in Syria: those affiliated with secular party Fatah were considered loyal to the Assad family whereas Hamas supporters would increasingly identify themselves with the Islamic opposition. However, this is a simplification of the reality on the ground as the Assad regime has historically supported different groups in the Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
What is certain is that Palestinians took casualties on both sides of the conflict and most importantly the Palestinian leadership is still divided between Gaza – the Hamas stronghold – and the West Bank, as it has been since 2007.
Over the last decade, lacking a unified political front, Palestinian leaders have not been able to deal with Israel on the case for a future Palestinian State or the right of return for Palestinian refugees. With the peace process in a deadlock, political analysts have largely focused on the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Meanwhile, it was not clear which power was willing to take over in the Middle East.
Many regional powers have occasionally tested their ambitions in this theatre but with no real strategy or accomplishment. Meanwhile, other Arab powers promised but never really gave any tangible support to the Palestinian cause.
More recently, Russia has been presenting itself as a real contender. After routing out the opposition in Aleppo, Russia put another important victory under its belt beyond Syria: holding reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.
Both parties have agreed to form a new Palestinian National Council to hold new elections. This is the first political success in the last ten years of Palestinian politics. It is too soon to predict whether this turn will bear any fruit, but it surely sheds new light on the importance of the Syrian conflict and its foreign actors for both Israel’s and Palestine’s future.