ISRAELI SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE IN THE CONTEXT OF SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

ARTICLES DEFENCE & SECURITY INTERNSHIP PROGRAM

Aslıhan ÖZDEN

National security is a nation’s ability to overcome threats it faces or might face and to make progress in this direction from any situation, at any possible time (Eisekent and Siboni, 2019). As a result, security is one of the most common concepts that helps states survive throughout history. Each country has had different security principles in accordance with their domestic and foreign conditions. When this is the case, states have needed to build different intelligence structures to foresee possible threats to their existence. Israel had to have specific security policies and a powerful intelligence agency due to its internal affairs and geographical location since it was established in 1948 (Johnson et al., 2009). Israel also followed effective strategies toward wars, crises, or revolts in the Middle East that may be constituted a possible threat to Israel’s security. This paper will analyse Israeli security and intelligence in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

Before starting, it may be helpful to examine Israel’s geographical location and security reasoning in order to provide a framework. Israel –with Jerusalem as its capital- is a Middle East country on the south-eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea and shares borders with Arabic countries like Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. It can be said that Israel has faced geopolitical loneliness since its establishment in 1948 (Yesevi, 2014). In addition, Israel is a country that has had to deal with possible threats from any neighboring state. As a result, it endeavored to provide a peaceful environment in the area and enhanced alliances to moderate relations with its neighbors and the Palestinian population (Eisekent and Siboni, 2019). Furthermore, since Israel is located in an unstable and threatening region, security concerns based on external threats, wars, terror acts, and non-state threats mainly shaped Israeli foreign and security policies (Efegil, 2013). Israeli President Shimon Peres claimed that the threats against the state of Israel that should be required to be ready from are knives, tanks, and missiles. He referred to the non-state threats and actors like the Hezbollah, the Fatah, and the Hamas by the word knives. Tanks meant usual threats like Syria, and by missiles, Peres referred to threats like Iran that has a possibility to have mass destruction weapons (Johnson et al., 2009).[1] As seen above, non-state actors also constitute a possible threat to Israel. For instance, during the Second Lebanon War, the Hezbollah, which has different types of guided missiles like anti-aircraft, anti-tank, land-to-sea missiles assault, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones), formed a challenge as a guerrilla force (Brom and Elran, 2007).

What is more, as it is known, Israel is the national home of Jewish people. It is a democratic state which provides equal rights based on justice, freedom, and peace for all citizens regardless of gender and ethnic origin (Eisekent and Siboni, 2019). However, there is a specific adversary notion according to the Old Testament. Since the state of Israel has been officially established as a Jewish state, it was inevitable to describe its principles independently from the principles of the Old Testament (Balpınar, 2012). It is claimed that as long as the opposite side does not attack the individual or the community, it is called a “dissident”; but, if this dissident turns out to be an aggressor, it is now defined as “adversary”. It is argued that the Sons of Israel have been chosen as a unique and holy society and promised success. This produces a function that glorifies them and underestimates others. It also creates an infrastructure for the enemy’s identification parameters (Balpınar, 2012). In other words, the religious factor embodies the provision of categorizing the Son of Israel and others.

All those conditions and understandings have necessitated the formation of a powerful intelligence agency in Israel. Even though Israel is a ‘young’ country, Israel’s intelligence agency is considered one of the most professional and effective intelligence services globally (Kahana, 2010). It is responsible for determining the strategies and potential of the Arab military forces against Israel, combating Arab terrorism in Israel and abroad, which it sees as being directed against Jewish existence and providing data and political connection.[2] The Intelligence activity has transformed during Israeli history depending according to the period. Today, the Israeli intelligence community is composed of the national intelligence agency (Mossad), the military information section (Aman or Agaf Modin), and the internal security unit (Shin Bet or Shabak) (Vilasi, 2018).

Mossad

The first Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, instructed the foundation of an organization to coordinate state intelligence institutions, which was the first step of Israeli intelligence on December 13, 1949 (Yesevi, 2014). It was named as the “Central Institute for the Intelligence and Special Missions”. In March 1951, it was reorganized as Mossad (Ha-Mossad le-Mod’in ule-Tafkidim Meyuchadim), which is the flagship of the Israeli Intelligence. In April 1951, it started to operate under the command of its first director Reuven Shiloah. It was missioned to collect data, analyze them, and carry out covert operations abroad. According to a CIA report published in 1979, it is seen that Mossad’s ability to gather information by infiltrating senior executives and government officials in foreign countries is extentive. As Ostrovsky, a former Mossad agent, claimed, even though Mossad was established as an agency responsible toward the Prime Minister, however after a few years the political power lost its control over Mossad (Yesevi, 2014).

Aman

Aman (or Agaf Modin) was established as the Military Intelligence (MI) in the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces (Kahana, 2010). It is an independent service of the ground forces, an organization of the Israeli Air Force. Moreover, it is responsible for collecting data about the Arab armies and warning of any possible war and terror threats. Aman is directed by two central units: the Collecting Department and the Research Division. The main missions of the collecting department are imagery intelligence and signal intelligence which are responsible for eavesdropping the telephones lines of the Arab states and of the recording of land-line dialogues. The Research Division, the largest part of the MI, is divided into different units defined by geographical focus and functional goals. Those parts are responsible for picking up and examining data collected by the Israeli Intelligence Community, including the MI itself, Shin Bet, and Mossad. 

Shin Bet

Israel Security Agency, known as Shin Bet, is Israel’s internal security service. It was established as an organization affiliated to the Ministry of Defence, but it became an independent institution responsible for its activities only to the Prime Minister after a year (Vilasi, 2018). The main goal is preventing illegal actions that threaten homeland security and providing order in the regime and country’s institutions (Pascovich, 2014). Isser Harel, the first head of the Shin Bet, has always stressed the importance and the sensitivity of the security services functioning within the framework of democracy. In his book entitled ‘National Security and Democracy,’ he claimed, “Internal security is essential, but also involves risks”. It may be compared to a sharp and hazardous tool – a surgeon’s knife. It may be considered a lifesaver when used in a proper, reliable, and responsible way. But when misused, irresponsibly, or needlessly – it may be lethal.” The Shin Bet was effective, especially in the Jewish settlements and in the territories managed by the Palestinians. It consists of three main departments: Arabic Affairs Department, Non-Arabic Affairs Department, and Security Department.

Background of Israel-Syria Relations

Since it has tried to protect national interests and formed a safe region for its existence, Israel has not pursued a single policy on Syria throughout its history (Bulut, 2018). The Syrian border determined by France and England in 1923 was redefined after founded the State of Israel. In addition, with the Six Days War in 1967, Israel took control Golan Heights from Syria. This gave rise to a deepening of the Israel-Syria border dispute. During the Madrid Conferences, it was aimed to provide a peaceful atmosphere for Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Although Israel and Jordan signed a treaty, there was no reconciliation between Syria and Israel (Bulut, 2020). On the other, the new American President George W. Bush was thinking differently about Syria-Israel-America relations than Bill Clinton. Bush defined Syria as a threat against Israel rather than an ally in the Arab-Israel Peace process.

Israel’s Post-2011 Syria Policy

Until 2013, Israel refrained to intervene militarily and diplomatically in Syria although it was dissatisfied with the Assad regime (Kökçam, 2019). Israel mainly followed a wait-and-see policy due to the uncertainty in the region. Israeli executive elites and specialists desired a new administration in Syria, one anti-Iran and ‘Sunni’ and close to Saudi Arabia’s regional policy. Since the overthrowing of the Assad regime it was assessed that the Iran and Hezbollah factors would weaken in Syria, these developments were considered in favor of Israel. On the other hand, because the Assad regime was considered a predictable enemy, it constituted less a threat than any other enemy replaced by Bashar-al-Assad. This lead to think that the chaotic environment cause by the weakening of the regime could result in non-state actors having a chance to gain access to chemical weapons (Bulut, 2018). Moreover, Israel was concerned that Iran and Hezbollah might strengthen their influence in Syria.

Regional Actors Affecting Israel’s Syria Policy 

Israel also followed a “red line policy” during the Syrian Civil War. The first component of the red line policy is the ‘Hezbollah’, which is the most significant threat for Israel in Syria (Hanauer, 2016). As Major General Yaakov Amidror claimed in 2015, Israel had to prevent Hezbollah from getting game-changing weapons and forming an operation base that would be a possible threat for Israel (Hanauer, 2016). As Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, stated that “The chemical weapons were an American red line, it wasn’t an Israel red line”, Oren said. “Our red line was that if Iran and Syria try to convey chemical weapons or game-changing weaponry to Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations, Israel will not remain passive. We were prepared to stand by the red line, and still are.” It was also claimed that Iran provided weapons and ammunition for Syria and technical support for Syrian security units. Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in the 2015 UN General Assembly session that Israel would continue to respond forcefully to any attacks against itself from Syrian territory.

It was clearly seen that Israel would take seriously any attack against its territory and use force to respond. In addition, after exacerbating the situation in Syria, Iranian revolutionary guards were sent to Syria to support the Syrian regime in suppressing the protests (Bulut, 2020). In time, it was clearly seen that Iran desired to become a regional actor. Israel had to take Iran into account while making decisions about Syria because the Syrian government increased its dependence on Iran due to Iranian support. As a result, Syrian freedom of action on its territory was shared by Iran. The involvement of Hezbollah in the war expanded the framework of the Israeli struggle in Syria. In January 2015, Israel killed a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali, and six others with him during an air strike. Again, at the end of the same year, Samir Kantar, one of the leaders of Hezbollah was killed with an attack on Golan Heights by Israeli forces (Kökçam, 2019). The second element of the red line policy is that Hezbollah fighters, Iran-related groups, forces linked to al‐Qaeda or DAESH build infrastructure by settling in a position adjacent to the ceasefire line established in 1974 east of the Golan Heights. And third, Israel announced that if there was an attack, whether intentionally or unintentionally, on the territories controlled by Israel, it would not be tolerated.

What is more, Israel is also concerned about the existence of radical organizations such as DAESH, Hezbollah, Hamas, or Al-Qaeda- Al-Nusra for many reasons. Firstly, those radical terror organizations have begun to show presence on the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, which are bordering Israel, and tried to establish infrastructure there (Bulut, 2020). Another reason is that the primary importance of DAESH for Israel is its capability to control the stability and safety of Jordan and Lebanon. Israel also regarded itself among the targets of DAESH in the long term.  

The Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan was another factor that affected Israel’s Syria policies (Kökçam, 2019). Jordan claimed to establish a safe region on the Syrian border because there may be an influx of refugees after the fall of Aleppo. In this sense, Israel and Jordan shared the same concern about south Syria. Moreover, it makes Jordan even more critical for Israel since the Jordan administration had close ties with Western states. Israel is also concerned about many refugees from Syria and participation in radical organizations in Jordan (Romirowsky, 2011).

The Golan Heights is a plateau surrounded by the Raqqa Valley with rich riverbeds captured by Israel during the Six Days War in 1967 which it annexed unilaterally in 1981 (Bag, 2020). The region is essential for Israel for several reasons. Firstly, Israel extracts one-third of its need for water from the Golan Heights. Moreover, being in control of the hills gives Israel significant advantage from a geostrategic and security point of view. Golan Heights is also constituted a buffer zone to overcome possible war with Syria. In addition, Israel could gain superiority over its neighboring countries by taking control of the heights. In time, the Syrian Civil War reached the Golan Heights in 2013, and Israel responded to the attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu convened his Cabinet in the Golan Heights and called on the world to recognize this area as the “land of Israel”, but the international community did not accept and stated that it was contrary to international law. After that, US President Trump announced that the US “recognize Israeli sovereignty” over the Golan Heights (Bağ, 2020).  

Global Actors

Moreover, after the ‘Russian involvement in Syria in 2015, the power balances have changed in favor of the Assad regime (Kökçam, 2019). Initially, Israel attentively observed and tried to determine how influent Russia would turn out to be concerning the region’s long-term political and military prospects (Hanauer, 2016). Russia was a supporter of the current Syrian regime and also had close relations with Iran. Since Israel realized that Russia would be an effective actor on the balance of power in the region, Russia has been considered a power for cooperation regarding the regional policies of Israel. After Russian involvement, Israel was concerned that military reinforcement provided by Russia would help increase the military capability of Syria and its allies, which would constitute a threat against Israel. In addition, after Turkey downed a Russian warplane in 2015, Israel closely followed the deployment of S-300 and S-400 air defense systems to Syria. As a result, Syrian control of Syrian airspace was mostly taken over by Russia, and it resulted in Israel’s ability to organize air operations in Syria being limited and coordinated with Russia (Bulut, 2020). After the start of the Syrian Civil War, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow twice as May and November 2013. Netanyahu stated their three main interests in Syria during the meetings: to prevent weapons from reaching Hezbollah through Syria, to prevent the war from reaching its borders, to prevent attacks that may originate from Syria to Israel in advance, and to reserve the right to self-defense (Kökçam, 2019).

In the following times, Russia-Israel relations were built according to their common interests and started in the unity of regional and global understanding, both militarily and politically. Because of this, Israel has refrained from condemning the war waged by Russia in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, or its intervention during the Ukrainian civil turmoil, which all Western countries and especially the United States have condemned. Iranian and Hezbollah militants tried to move their bases under Israeli threat in the south of Syria and around Damascus to the north of Hama and Aleppo. This development was disrupted because a unity of understanding was reached between Israel and Russia.[3]

The USA was another global actor shaping Israeli security policies on the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration supported the Syrian opposition and followed a policy to overthrow the Assad regime. In 2013, both the USA and Israel supported using military attacks against the Assad regime due to the using chemical weapon in Syria. The common concern of Israel and the USA on Syria is Iran’s shipment of weapons to Hezbollah via Syria. The Golan Heights were not accepted as Israeli land by President Obama. On the other hand, Donal Trump did not support the Syrian opposition and imposed sanctions on Iran (Kökçam, 2019). Trump also did not want to take part in the political process in Syria. With the US presence in Syria and diplomatic relations with Russia, Israel stepped up its attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah in Syria. Moreover, the decision of Donald Trump to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli lands also concreted the American support for Israel’s Syria policies.

As discussed above, because of its geographical location and being open to threats, Israel had to defend itself against many possible threats. It brought together the requirement of robust security and intelligence system for Israel. Due to the instability of the states and environment of the Middle East, Israel tried to develop different alternatives to ensure its security. On the other hand, Israel observed closely the region at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. It adopted different policies considering its neighbor states, radical terrorist groups, global actors, such as the USA and Russia. However, most importantly, the national security interests of Israel are the primary indicator of the policies implemented

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[1] This quote was cited by the writers from the book Knives, Tanks and Missiles: Israel’s Security Revolution.

[2] This quote was cited by writer from Georg Simmel, Çatışma Fikri ve Modern Kültürde Çatışma, 1999.

[3] The Economist, The growing power of Iran and Hezbollah worries Israel. 2017.