Israel and Syria
August 15, 2007
The Arab-Israeli military balance now consists of two largely separate balances: The first such balance is the balance between Israel and the Palestinians. Since 2000, this has been an asymmetric war that Israel has largely won. Its politics poison the region, and have led to a civil conflict among the Palestinians that may take years to resolve. At least for the present, however, this balance is so clearly in Israel’s favor that the Israeli-Palestinian War that has gone on since 2000 is more a political struggle than a military one.
The second balance is shaped by Israel and Syria. Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan have left Syria isolated from Israel’s main Arab neighbors in both military and political terms. Syria has made things worse by weakening its ties to other Arab power like Saudi Arabia, adventures in Lebanon, ties to Iran, mismanagement of its economic development, and poor force planning and military development. Syria can use terrorist and extremist movements are proxies, but only as a “spoiler” effort that irritates Israel more than it pressures or threatens it. It can join with Iran in backing a movement like the Hezbollah, but – as the Israeli-Hezbollah War showed in 2006 – such conflicts do not give Syria military leverage or clear strategic benefits.
As for the conventional military balance, Syria has become so weak and isolated relative to Israel that such a war could still be bloody and costly to both sides, but would almost certainly be quickly and decisively won by Israel. Israel, in turn, has nothing to gain from occupying more Syrian territory, taking unnecessary casualties, or destabilizing Syria in ways that might produce a far more risk-prone Sunni Islamist government. Such a war would not be a zero sum game. It would rather be one in which both sides would lose relative to peace almost regardless of the outcome of the fighting and which side suffered most in the process.