Absent some shocking development, U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week will mark the end of the Syrian civil war. True, there are pockets of opposition in some parts of the country, including some 1,000 Islamic State members of the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army terrorist group not far from Israel’s border, but ultimately, it seems that Syrian President Bashar Assad has done the unthinkable and emerged the victor from a hell of his own creation.
And how does Israel emerge from all this?
Despite a plethora of unprecedented possibilities, with no achievement to speak of. We were not swept up in the fighting on the other side of the border, and that is not a given. Israel’s strategic goal right now is merely a return to the state of affairs that existed before the war, or as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put it, “strict adherence to the separation agreement from 1974.”
It is difficult to describe just how modest our ambitions are. What is the separation agreement anyway? It means that Assad gets to rebuild his military, the renewed threat of conventional war between Israel and Syria, eternal vigilance on the Golan Heights for fear of a 1973-style surprise Syrian attack, tank brigades on constant alert in the Golan. In sum, the geostrategic arena will be turned on its head. But Israel is not concerned about any of this.
To be honest, beyond a return to square one, our situation will be exponentially worse. It’s not just Syria that will threaten us from the north now, but its great patrons, Russia and Iran, whether directly or through its militias and its attempts to establish itself permanently in Syria. We can also add Hezbollah to this psychotic cast of players. Iran’s strategic arm will return to Lebanon well-trained, skilled, armed and now free to threaten us whenever it sees fit.
Israel does not seem poised to reap any benefits on the political front, either. There has been talk here and there about working towards international recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, but according to leaks coming out of Washington, Trump will likely not acquiesce on the issue. In a matter of days or possibly weeks, Syria will go back to being Syria. Things will go back to the way they were, as if the war did not go on for several years, as if there had never been any opportunities or possibilities for change.
But there were. We could have established facts on the ground regarding Israeli settlements on the Golan, taken advantage of Hezbollah’s distress to deal a crushing blow to its missile arsenal or assisted the Kurds. We could have demanded the more serious demilitarization of Syria than the miserable agreements reached in 1974. This is not the wisdom of hindsight. We can still make this demand. These proposals were raised in real time in cabinet meetings, in the press and in other platforms. But in Israel—from the prime minister to the alternating ministers to the defense establishment—strategic shortsightedness has bred stagnation.
Netanyahu has an intimate and unprecedented relationship with both Putin and Trump. In the Syrian arena, these relationships have proven highly effective, first and foremost by preserving Israeli freedom of action in Syria.
Time and again, Netanyahu explained that “the Middle East is in a state of historic turmoil.” Was accepting that Assad is back in power and on our border the best we could do?