The Trump administration’s decision to launch missile strikes on the Assad regime’s al-Shayrat airfield two weeks ago was a major surprise. Until the regime chose to use chemical weapons in Idlib province, President Trump and his team had been signaling that they would prioritize fighting ISIS and look to work with Assad and Russia to eliminate it. In the aftermath of the strike, there is mixed signaling from the administration and it does not appear that they have made up their mind as to which path to take. On the one hand, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has used forceful language implying that regime change is on the table. But on the other, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have signaled a much more cautious approach that will continue to focus primarily on ISIS. The only thing we know is that the Trump administration has sent a firm signal that it will not accept the use of chemical weapons in Syria – and it is unlikely Assad will test that proposition again. But Assad will likely continue to prosecute the war, and he and his Russian and Iranian allies will continue to target civilians via other means. It remains to be seen precisely where American policy will go from here.
For Israel, the question of American policy is critical as it tries to protect itself from the potential destabilizing effects of the conflict to its north. But no matter matter what policy the United States chooses, whether it be deeper engagement with Assad and Russia, regime change in Syria, or something completely different, Israeli objectives and strategy should remain the same.
Thus far the Israeli government has been highly successful. If I were to predict six years ago that there would be a massive civil war directly to Israel’s north with 500,000 fatalities and millions displaced, I would have bet that this would have profound negative consequences for Israel. Instead, the Israeli government has to date successfully weathered the storm by keeping a low profile, recognizing that nothing good could come of a major Israeli intervention in Syria, and pursuing clear and limited objectives. This approach is likely to continue.
Israel’s first objective is to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons – especially longer range accurate missiles – to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This has been a problem for years before the Syrian civil war started, and Hezbollah has rearmed significantly since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict. However, what Israel has tried to maintain is freedom of action inside Syria in the event that it has indications that advanced Iranian missiles are being transferred from Syria to Lebanon. When Israel gets such indicators it has on a number of occasions been known to launch quiet air strikes to take out these convoys, and then provided no public acknowledgement. The Russian intervention in 2015 certainly complicated the situation as a miscalculation or mistake can now lead Israel to inadvertently kill Russian forces. The Israelis appeared to work out a de-confliction mechanism with the Russians to provide them the flexibility to operate in Syrian air space when necessary. But tensions between Russia and Israel escalated a couple of weeks ago when Israel struck a facility in Syria too close to Russian forces, setting off a round of recriminations. Israel will try to ensure that in any scenario involving an American policy change by the Trump administration, Israel maintains this capability to intervene to defend itself when necessary.
Israel’s second priority will be to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or other Iranian supported militia and forces off of its border in the North around the Golan Heights. Israel will also continue to seek to keep Sunni extremists from operating in this area. This has been a major concern for Israel since the start of the conflict, and in 2015 an Iranian one star general traveling too close to the border was killed by an Israeli strike in the Golan.
The good news is that much of the area of southern Syria is now controlled by a group of moderate Sunni forces known as the Southern Front. This group is an alliance of smaller local militias that has been supported by the United States and Jordan with some quiet support from Israel. As a result, southern Syria has become one of the most stable areas in the country, resulting in a default buffer zone that protects both Israel and Jordan.
The key for Israel will be to ensure that in any final resolution of the Syrian conflict or change in Trump administration policy, the Southern Front remains in place. If the Trump administration cuts a deal with Russia and the Assad regime, it should be contingent on them not restarting the conflict in the South and trying to take this territory. Or if the United States chooses to escalate the conflict in the South to put more pressure on Assad by giving the Southern Front more sophisticated weaponry or supporting an assualt north towards Damascus, Israel will also be highly vested in ensuring that this does not have the inadvertent effect of destabilizing the territory near its border. The good news is that this objective should be achievable as it is unlikely that the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have the capacity to retake all of Syria. And the most realistic negotiated political outcomes or Russian-American agreements will likely involved decentralized forms of government in Syria where the local forces maintain control of key areas on the ground.
A third central objective for Israel will be to prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria that could get into the hands of extremists who may launch attacks attacks on Israeli civilians. At the start of the Syria conflict this was the foremost Israeli priority. And indeed, despite the heavy criticism heaped on Barack Obama for walking away from his “redline” on Syrian chemical weapons use, the Israelis were pleased with the 2013 agreement, which clearly did not get all of the chemical weapons out of Syria but eliminated 1300 tons of the material – likely the large majority of Assad’s arsenal.
The priority Israel places on this issue also explains why Minister of Defense Lieberman came out so strongly in support of the military strikes against the Assad regime, drawing a sharp rebuke from Vladimir Putin. In most instances, Israel has tried to avoid antagonizing Russia or getting in the middle of U.S-Russian competition, but on this particular matter it is highly invested in the American position. Israel was also likely looking to strengthen its relationship with the new American administration, causing it to be bolder in its public posture than it has been in the past.
Finally, Israel also has a broader overarching objective of trying to limit Iranian influence in Syria. As opposed to the three narrow objectives described above, this one is much more difficult to achieve and is more in the realm of theory. The reality is that Iranian supported militias and Qods Force operatives are deeply enmeshed inside the Syrian regime at this point, and Israel likely recognizes that. Iran will continue to have influence in Syria and be able to use its allies in Damascus to supply and strengthen Hezbollah. All Israel can do is continue to push for American policies that limit Iran’s influence in Syria to the largest extent possible, while recognizing the reality of the situation on the ground. And no matter what policy the Trump administration ultimately adopts, this will likely remain the Israeli approach.