Israel has spent most of the Syrian civil war watching from the sidelines rather than becoming mired in a sectarian conflict in which neither of the sides looked particularly appealing as an ally.
Last week’s sarin gas attack, apparently by Syrian air forces, has intensified a long running debate about whether the government should be doing more to alleviate humanitarian suffering just beyond its northern border and act militarily to weaken President Bashar Assad.
Despite a state of war that exists between the neighbors, a growing number of Israelis are calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to do more to assist Syrian civilians, arguing that Jewish history of displacement imparts a moral obligation on Israel to help wounded Syrian civilians.
At a security cabinet meeting on Sunday, ministers mulled proposals to accept Syrian children injured in the gas attack — beyond a 4-year-old policy to take in Syrians from rebel areas near the border for temporary medical treatment — but made no final decision. A similar proposal that got consideration in the wake of the siege of Aleppo has yet to be implemented
“As Israelis and Jews, the use of gas takes us back [in time],’’ said Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, alluding to the Holocaust, during the cabinet meeting. “Our obligation as Jews and Israelis is to offer aid to the victims of the gas attack. There are many children and the elderly…. We must not stand idly by.”
The angst points to a tug of war between two schools of thought on how to grapple with Syria, a dilemma that former National Security Advisor Giora Eiland described in an interview with Israel Radio as a “struggle between the Jewish heart and mind.’’
The dominant approach reflects a realpolitik recognition that Israel, even though it could topple Assad, shouldn’t take sides in the civil war because it has little ability to shape a new Syria and is viewed as a pariah by most of the Arab world.
While the fall of Assad would be a strategic game changer for Israel because of Syria’s role as a key link in the alliance between Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese military organization, there is fear of a messy entanglement in Syria like Israel’s ill-fated intervention in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Wary of Islamic State and Al Qaeda linked rebels, some in Israel even see Assad as a devil-you-know who is preferable to potential chaos to Israel’s north.
As a result, Israel has limited its intervention in Syria to strikes aimed at blocking delivery of so called “game-changing” weapons systems to Hezbollah, preventing Shiite militants from establishing a presence in southern Syria near the border with the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, and deterring groups from cross-border attacks. At the same time it has treated thousands of Syrians in its hospitals, and sends food, clothes and blankets to pro-rebel villages along the border.
“Israel has been very clear that it doesn’t want to enter the mix in Syria, but it will safeguard its vital interests,” said Dore Gold, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry under Netanyahu. Intervention “might create a more difficult situation. Israel has been very careful and responsible about what it does.”
Israel’s biggest concern about the outcome of the civil war is to ensure that Syria doesn’t become a satellite of Iran, with Tehran allied forces stationed near the Golan Heights.
A minority school of thought holds that Israel should be more proactive in hastening the downfall of Assad, a goal that overlaps with the urge among many Israelis to give more humanitarian assistance.
“There’s no clash between morals and strategy here…. Our strategic problem is that the arrival of the Russians to Syria strengthened Assad and has brought in Iran and Hezbollah. These are our worst enemies,’’ said Amos Yadlin, the former chief of the Israeli army’s intelligence corps, in a TV interview. “We have capabilities. Our role should be to weaken Assad and to distance Iran and Hezbollah.”
Russia’s success in turning the tide of the war and the humanitarian crisis during the siege of Aleppo have strengthened the advocates who would like to see Israel come off the fence against the Syrian government and abandon its policy of neutrality.
“The position that it’s better to see Assad go has become more mainstream,” said Joel Parker, a researcher on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Everybody agrees that it’s better to get rid of him. Even though that he’s the devil you know, it’s clearer that he is the devil.’’
On the eve of the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover — which celebrates the biblical liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt — Yuval Cherlow, a prominent ethicist and a founder of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, said celebrants should consider the plight of the Syrian people during the traditional Seder meal.
“I think all Israelis are very confused. On the one hand, we are satisfied that they are not shooting at Israel. Both sides are our enemies,” he said. “On the other hand, our heart is breaking to see the innocent suffer.”
In the 11 days since the chemical attack, a crowd-funding campaign by the Israeli group Just Beyond Our Border raised nearly 1.5 million shekels, or $410,000, according to the Israeli Mimoona website.
“We cannot stay quiet as innocent children and babies — our neighbors — are gassed and suffering,’’ the organization said in a statement.
Despite the sentiment, commentators say the public outpouring on behalf of the Syrians is unlikely to prompt a change in Israel’s Syria policy. Deeper intervention against Assad is still too risky, said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The pressures within Israel to do something regarding the humanitarian catastrophe are not accompanied by a politically realistic strategy, given the risk of direct conflict with Russia and of becoming a full-fledged fighting party in the bloody Syrian crisis,’’ he said.
Mitnick is a special correspondent.