Much of the world reeled in horror at the scenes of destruction that accompanied the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. But as Iraqi jets pounded Tehran, and Iran struck back by sending waves of indoctrinated youth into the teeth of Iraq’s artillery, the Israeli government sat back and watched its ideal scenario play out. Two of its fiercest foes were grinding one another down in a war of attrition, with its patron in Washington providing both sides with everything from mortar rounds to assistance with chemical weapons.
“We used to call the Iran-Iraq War the blessed war,” reflected Caroline Glick, a right-wing Israeli commentator and former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “May it go on for a hundred years.”
Now Israel finds itself in a remarkably similar -- and equally advantageous -- situation. The civil war in Syria has turned major population centers from Homs to Aleppo into rubble, degrading the Assad regime’s military capacity. Its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, has suffered thousands of casualties in a counterinsurgency campaign across the Syrian border. Rebel forces press on but show no sign that they can topple Assad without aggressive U.S. intervention -- a scenario that the Obama administration has explicitly ruled out with its pledge of “surgical strikes,” and that the Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus appears to oppose as well.
Thus President Bashar al-Assad remains firmly in place, but as a weakened figure loathed by his former friends in the U.S. and Europe, and presiding over a country fragmented by sectarianism and infected with imported Muslim fundamentalists. For Israel, the situation represents the fulfillment of a strategy outlined by the neoconservative scholar Bernard Lewis, a favorite of Netanyahu and many of his advisers. “[A] possibility, which could even be precipitated by [Islamic] fundamentalism, is what has of late been fashionable to call ‘Lebanonization,’” Lewis wrote in an influential 1992 essay in Foreign Affairs called “Rethinking the Middle East.” “If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity … The state then disintegrates -- as happened in Lebanon -- into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.”
Assad may represent the intermediary between Israel’s enemies Iran and the Shia militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, but ultimately, Israel has always enjoyed a comfortable relationship with him. Assad has ensured that the Israeli-occupied frontiers of the Golan Heights have remained calm, and when Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus attempted to march on the Israeli-occupied frontier in 2011, Assad remained silent as Israeli soldiers gunned them down. Until the first moments of the Syrian uprising, he was engaged in prolonged negotiations with the Israeli government over the Golan Heights, a process that likely would have involved normalizing relations with Tel Aviv. Before the Syrian masses, Assad roared like a lion, but behind the scenes he treated Israel with a lambskin glove.
It is for these reasons that an Israeli intelligence officer described Assad to The Times of London this May as “the devil we know,” echoing an assessment offered by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon back in 2005. According to the “intelligence sources” quoted by the paper, “an intact, but weakened, Assad regime would be preferable for the country and for the whole troubled region.”
So why has the Israeli government expended so much energy pressing Washington to draw a red line on the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and why was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the key outfit of America’s pro-Israel lobby, pressing Congress to authorize military force? The answer is not just about Syria. Indeed, in a press release calling for U.S. intervention, AIPAC homed in not on Damascus but Tehran, stating, “As we witness unthinkable horror in Syria, the urgency of stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions is paramount.”
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and Netanyahu confidant, put it more succinctly when he declared, “The very fact that the U.S. was getting ready to act militarily in Syria is positive with regards to the situation in Iran. Confidence in an American commitment that Iran won’t get the bomb has been strengthened.”
Since Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria, Israeli media have depicted him as a weak, dithering figure who has failed to demonstrate “seriousness” in the face of evil. With U.S. missile strikes on hold, and possibly off the table, the Israeli government has begun disseminating threats that it will take matters into its own hands -- by bombing Iran, not Syria.
But even if the U.S. fails to intervene, the Israelis can take heart in knowing that the “blessed war” will continue well into the future.