Neocons, Israel, and the Fragmentation of Syria
By Stephen J. Sniegoski
It is widely realized now that the fall of President Bashar Assad’s regime would leave Syria riven by bitter ethnic, religious, and ideological conflict that could splinter the country into smaller enclaves. Already there has been a demographic shift in this direction, as both Sunnis and Alawites flee the most dangerous parts of the county, seeking refuge within their own particular communities. Furthermore, it is widely believed in Syria that, as the entire country becomes too difficult to secure, the Assad regime will retreat to an Alawaite redoubt in the northern coastal region as a fallback position.
Syrian Kurds, about ten percent of the country’s population, are also interested in gaining autonomy or joining with a larger Kurdistan. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD)—linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has engaged in a separatist insurgency in Turkey's Kurdish southeast region for nearly three decades—has gained control of key areas in northeast Syria. While Turkey has supported the Syrian opposition, it is terrified of a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, believing that it could provide a safe haven for staging attacks into Turkey. Moreover, Kurdish autonomy would encourage separatist sentiment within the Turkish Kurdish minority. Turkey has threatened to invade the border areas of Syria to counter such a development and Turkish armed forces with armor have been sent to Turkey’s border with the Syrian Kurdish region. A Turkish invasion would add further complexities to the fracturing of Syria.
What has not been readily discussed in reference to this break-up of Syria is that the Israeli and global Zionist Right has long sought the fragmentation of Israel’s enemies so as to weaken them and thus enhance Israel’s primacy in the Middle East. While elements of this geostrategic view can be traced back to even before the creation of the modern state of Israel, the concept of destabilizing and fragmenting enemies seems to have been first articulated as an overall Israeli strategy by Oded Yinon in his 1982 piece, "A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties." Yinon had been attached to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and his article undoubtedly reflected high-level thinking in the Israeli military and intelligence establishment in the years of Likudnik Menachem Begin’s leadership. Israel Shahak’s translation of Yinon’s article was titled “The Zionist Plan for the Middle East.”
In this article, Yinon called for Israel to use military means to bring about the dissolution of Israel's neighboring states and their fragmentation into a mosaic of homogenous ethnic and sectarian groupings. Yinon believed that it would not be difficult to achieve this result because nearly all the Arab states were afflicted with internal ethnic and religious divisions, and held together only by force. In essence, the end result would be a Middle East of powerless mini-statelets unable to confront Israeli power. Lebanon, then facing divisive chaos, was Yinon's model for the entire Middle East. Yinon wrote: "Lebanon's total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel's primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target." Information Clearing House.
Eminent Middle East historian, Bernard Lewis, who is a Zionist of a rightist hue and one of the foremost intellectual gurus for the neoconservatives, echoed Yinon with an article in the September 1992 issue of “Foreign Affairs” titled “Rethinking the Middle East.” In it, he wrote of a development he called “Lebanonization,” stating “[A] possibility, which could even be precipitated by [Islamic] fundamentalism, is what has of late been fashionable to call ‘Lebanonization.’ Most of the states of the Middle East—Egypt is an obvious exception—are of recent and artificial construction and are vulnerable to such a process. 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.” Since Lewis— credited with coining the phrase "clash of civilizations”—has been a major advocate of a belligerent stance for the West against the Islamic states, it would appear that he realized that such fragmentation would be the result of his belligerent policy.
In 1996, the neoconservatives presented to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu their study “A Clean Break” (produced under the auspices of an Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies), which described how Israel could enhance its regional security by toppling enemy regimes. Although this work did not explicitly focus on the fragmentation of states, such was implied in regard to Syria when it stated that “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” It added that “Damascus fears that the 'natural axis' with Israel on one side, central Iraq and Turkey on the other, and Jordan, in the center would squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi Peninsula. For Syria, this could be the prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East which would threaten Syria's territorial integrity.”
David Wurmser authored a much longer follow-up document to “A Clean Break” for the same Israeli think tank, entitled “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant.” In this work, Wurmser emphasized the fragile nature of the Middle Eastern Baathist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria in line with Lewis’s thesis, and how the West and Israel should act in such an environment.
In contrast to some of the Western democracies as well as Arab states, Israel did not publicly call for Assad's removal until a few months ago. This, however, does not mean that the Netanyahu government did not support this outcome. This tardiness has a number of likely reasons, one of which being the fear that an Islamist government would replace Assad that would be even more hostile to Israel and more prone than he to launch reckless attacks. Moreover, instability in a country on Israel’s border is of tremendous concern to its security establishment. It is feared that in such a chaotic condition, Assad’s massive chemical weapons arsenal and advanced surface-to-air missile systems could end up in the hands of terrorist groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah, which would not be hesitant to use them against Israel.
Unlike the armchair destabilization strategists and the neocons, the actual Israeli leaders, including hardline Likudniks such as Prime Minister Netanyahu, have to be concerned about facing the immediate negative political consequences of their decisions even if they believe that the long-term benefits would accrue to the country. This invariably leads to the exercise of caution in regard to dramatic change. Thus, the concern about the immediate security risks cited above likely had a significant effect on their decision-making.
Furthermore, it could have been counterproductive for Israel to express support for the Syrian opposition in its early stages. For Assad has repeatedly maintained that the opposition is orchestrated by foreign powers, using this argument to justify his brutal crackdown. Since Israel is hated by virtually all elements in the Middle East, its open support of the opposition could have turned many Syrians, and much of the overall Arab world, against the uprising. While Israel did not openly support the armed resistance, there have been claims from reliable sources that Israeli intelligence has been providing some degree of covert support along with other Western intelligence agencies, including that of the United States.
Since May of this year, however, the Israeli government has become open in its support for the overthrow of the Assad regime. In June, Netanyahu condemned the ongoing massacre of Syrian civilians by Assad, blaming the violence on an “Axis of Evil,” consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. “Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities and the world needs to act against them,” he proclaimed. This inclusion of Iran and Hezbollah illustrates Israel’s goal of using the Syrian humanitarian issue to advance its own national interest.
If the Assad regime were to fall, Israel would certainly be more secure with a splintered congeries of small statelets than a unified Syria under an anti-Israel Islamist regime. Consequently, staunch neoconservative Harold Rhode presents the fragmentation scenario in a positive light in his article, “Will Syria Remain a Unified State?” (July 10, 2012). In contrast to what has been the conventional Western narrative of the uprising against the Assad regime, which presents a heroic Sunni resistance being brutally terrorized by government forces and pro-government Alawite militias, Rhode writes with sympathy for the pro-government non-Sunni Syrian minorities: “In short, what stands behind most of the violence in Syria is the rise of Arab Sunni fundamentalism in its various forms – whether Salafi, Wahhabi, or Muslim Brotherhood. All of those threaten the very existence of the Alawites, the Kurds, and other members of the non-Sunni ethnic and religious groups.
“It is therefore much easier to understand why the ruling Alawites feel they are fighting a life and death battle with the Sunnis, and why they believe they must spare no effort to survive. It also explains why most of Syria's other minorities – such as the Druze, Ismailis, and Christians – still largely support the Assad regime.”
For a short aside, the neoconservative background of Harold Rhode is of considerable relevance, providing further evidence for the much denied neocon support for the fragmentation of Israel’s enemies. (The mainstream view is that the neocons are naïve idealists whose plans to transform dictatorships into model democracies invariably go awry.) Rhode, a longtime Pentagon official who was a specialist on the Middle East, was closely associated with neocon stalwarts Michael Ledeen, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. He was also a protégé of Bernhard Lewis, with Lewis dedicating his 2003 book, “The Crisis of Islam,” to him. Rhode served as a Middle East specialist for Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy during the administration of George W. Bush, where he was closely involved with the Office of Special Plans, which provided spurious propaganda to promote support for the war on Iraq. Rhode was a participant in the Larry Franklin affair, which involved dealings with Israeli agents, though Rhode was not charged with any crime. Alan Weisman, the author of the biography of Richard Perle, refers to Rhode as an “ardent Zionist” (“Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle,” p.146), more pro-Israel than Perle, which takes some doing since the latter has been accused of handing classified material to the Israelis. Rhode is currently a fellow with the ultra-Zionist Gatestone Institute, for which he wrote the above article.
Obviously the very removal of the Assad regime would be a blow against Israel’s major enemy, Iran, since Syria is Iran’s major ally. Significantly, Assad’s Syria has provided a conduit for arms and assistance from Iran to Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas, to use against Israel. If Israel and Iran had gone to war, these arms would have posed a significant threat to the Israeli populace. Moreover, a defanged Hezbollah would not be able to oppose Israeli military incursions into south Lebanon or even Syria.
A fragmented Syria removes the possible negative ramifications of Assad’s removal since it would mean that even if the Islamists should replace Assad in Damascus they would only have a rump Syrian state to control, leaving them too weak to do much damage to Israel and forcing them to focus their attention on the hostile statelets bordering them. Moreover, Israel is purportedly contemplating military action to prevent Assad’s chemical weapons from falling into the hands of anti-Israel terrorists. With such a divided country there is no powerful army capable of standing up to an Israeli military incursion.
The benefits accruing to Israel from the downfall of the Assad regime and the concomitant sectarian fragmentation and conflict in Syria go beyond the Levant to include the entire Middle East region. For sectarian violence in Syria is likely to cause an intensification of the warfare between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the entire Middle East region. Iran might retaliate against Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s support for the Syrian opposition by fanning the flames of Shiite Muslim revolution in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich and majority Shiite Eastern Province. Both areas have witnessed intermittent periods of violent protest and brutal government suppression since the Arab Spring of 2011. And Iraq remains a tinderbox ready to explode into ethno-sectarian war among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, with violence already on an uptick since the formal departure of American troops in December 2011.
In assessing the current regional situation, American-born Barry Rubin, professor at the Interdisciplinary Center (Herzliya, Israel) and director of its Global Research in International Affairs Center, writes in the Jerusalem Post (“The Region: Israel is in good shape,” July 15, 2012) : “The more I think about Israel’s security situation at this moment, the better it looks.” He goes on to state: “By reentering a period of instability and continuing conflict within each country, the Arabic-speaking world is committing a self-induced setback. Internal battles will disrupt Arab armies and economies, reducing their ability to fight against Israel. Indeed, nothing could be more likely to handicap development than Islamist policies.”
It should be noted that the “period of instability and continuing conflict” in the Middle East region has been the result of regime change and is in line with the thinking of Oded Yinon who, along with the other aforementioned geostrategic thinkers, pointed out that the major countries of the Middle East were inherently fissiparous and only held together by authoritarian regimes.
America’s removal of Saddam in a war spearheaded by the pro-Israel neoconservatives served to intensify Sunni-Shiite regional hostility and, in a sense, got the destabilization ball rolling. Iran is targeted now, and Israel and its neocon supporters seek to make use of dissatisfied internal elements, political and ethnic—the radical MEK, democratic secularists, monarchists, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Azeris— to bring down the Islamic regime. And while Saudi Arabia is currently serving Israeli interests by opposing Iran, should the Islamic Republic of Iran fall, Israel and their supporters would likely turn to Saudi Arabia’s dismemberment, seeking the severance of the predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Eastern Province, with some neocons already having made such a suggestion—e.g., Max Singer, Richard Perle, and David Frum (schemes which have been put on ice while Israel and its supporters have focused on Iran). If everything went according to plan, the end result would be a Middle East composed of disunited states, or mini-states, involved in intractable, internecine conflict, which would make it impossible for them to confront Israeli power and to provide any challenge to Israel’s control of Palestine. The essence of Yinon’s geostrategic vision of Israeli preeminence would be achieved.