12:00 AM, September 15, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 15, 2012

Syria: Israel's interest and a strategic double-game of the United States

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Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

Photo: AFP

While Western countries publicly condemn Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for turning Syria into a close to slaughter house, there are speculations that Israel and its backer might play the game reversely. For humanitarian grounds and for the sake of democratic aspiration of Syrian people, Al Assad is a cancerous tumor to be removed immediately. For some plain geo-strategic reasons (regional power play), regime change in Syria could be catalyst too. Nevertheless, when one profoundly considers a broader strategic ambition of the United States and its local conflicting allies, Syria offers more perplexing and puzzling result.
The US has diverged alliance with countries in the Middle East region, who are sometimes antagonistic to each other. While Saudi Arabia is the closest ally among the Muslim nations, Turkey remains key NATO ally in the region. The relations between Israel and the United States are rather more intriguing and delicate. Among them, Saudi Arabia is historically antagonistic towards Israel while Turkey's relation with Israel is strained in recent times over Palestine issues. More interestingly, although both Saudis and Turks are Sunni dominated, they have separate perspectives, understanding and ambition with regard to the future Middle East.
Now when it comes to these allies' diverge interests in the Syrian conflict, the United States faces a dilemma. It may pursue a course that might serve all or none's interests (which is unrealistic given its global and Middle Eastern role) or serve interests of some (a more realistic proposition).
The interest of Saudi and Turkey in the Syrian conflict is rather straightforward that both want Iran-backed Shiite president to be replaced with a Sunni regime, which would reinforce their regional standing. Israel, on the other hand, is an overwhelmingly dominant power in the entire Middle East region. Therefore, it is unrealistic to rule out its interest in the conflict. Israel has long been pursuing a policy to guide any outcome whatsoever in the Middle East in favour of its objectives. Besides, it has a direct strategic interest in Syria because of its unresolved territorial disputes (Golan Heights) and an effective de facto ceasefire with Syria.
Israel understands that the iron grip of Al Assad maintains a relative calm in its northeastern border. It also fears that the democracy in Syria might install a Saudi dominated Sunni Wahabi regime, as Hamas in Palestine, which could be more adverse to Israel's interest, and might inflict unpredictability in its northeastern frontier. Ironically, for Israel, if Al Assad remains in power, it would also bolster Iranian position in the region. It is therefore a paradox situation for the Israeli policy makers to pursue a straightforward line in Syria.
Therefore, what most Israeli experts see the best option for Israel in the conflict is a severely weak, wrecked and war-ravaged Syria that would emerge as a toothless tiger. A weak Syria with struggling regime is a dream choice for Israeli policy strategists. The wild card to drag Syria into a long, protracted civil war is to Israel's best interest. The religious and ethnic cleavages in Syria could initiate a complete balkanization process, which means that Syria will be divided along violent sectarian fault lines and face political deadlock like Lebanon during its civil war without formally breaking up.
Dore Gold, the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is worth quoting for his views: "What you have in Syria is that the Middle East is coming apart; a new form of chaos is replacing what has existed." It is clear now that Israel is very much eager to see Syria fragmented into pieces and in a state of continuous civil war.
The question is how the United States would reconcile these competing interests of its conflicting allies? Is there any linear approach that the United States could take toward the crisis which could accommodate all the concerns and interests of its allies or it has to play the double-game to individually satisfy the respective allies? If United States prefers the latter option, what could be the prospective scenario that might leave one or a couple of US allies bewildered or exploited?
Given the nature of the bonds between the US and Israel, and the track records of US policy pursuance in the region in recent past, it is predictable that Israel's interests would be dominant in setting the US policy direction. Besides, the irritation in the US establishment that the Jihadist and religious extremists are exploiting the Syrian situation is also tempting the United States to distant itself from Saudi guided outcome. However, it cannot overtly declare its position as such.
Ironically, while weak, war-ravaged Syria would serve the interests Israel (possibly supported by the US, as discussed), it will equally harm the interests of the nation that made miscalculated move to fight with each other. Extremely divided Syria along the sectarian line would naturally spill over and engulf the entire Middle East for the next couple of decades, offering Israel a big sigh of relief. The problems in Libya have spilled over into Niger and Chad and the problems in Syria are already spilling over into Turkey and Lebanon.
This process very much intends to do to create sectarian hatred, ethnic divisions, racism, and religious wars. All the countries that the US and its allies are destabilizing have natural dividing lines, and when tribal, ethnic, confessional, and religious animosity is ignited in one country, it will accordingly affect other countries.
Turkey is already feeling the pinch and has been embroiled in Kurds problem (Syria and Iran will play the Kurds card to reciprocate Turk's action in arming and training Syrian rebels), while Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be immensely jolted with their Shiite uprising funneled by Iran in the coming years. All these will end up in losing strength of countries that could pose any challenge to Israel or American interest in the region. As put earlier, ending this game is not Israel's and US's interest. Sunni brotherhood apparently would not see daylight anytime soon. Neither Iran nor Hizbullah too could pull off the game to their favour. It is just a lose-lose game for the anti-Israeli Middle Eastern countries.

The writer is an Analyst on strategic affairs and currently attached with the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University. He can be reached at: zak_info@yahoo.co.uk

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