The deepening unrest in Syria threatens to drive an unlikely wedge between many American conservatives and their allies in Israel on the eve of Mitt Romney’s friendly visit to the country.
Even before the violence intensified and closed in on Damascus this week, Romney and his advisers were pushing for more direct American support of the Syrian rebels, while the Obama administration focused bringing international pressure to bear and working through proxies.
But as the often-muddled American debate focuses almost entirely on how best to remove President Bashar Al-Assad, a key ally of Iran, despot, and human rights violator, the central Israeli concern is simple: stability. Damascus is visible from Israeli border post 40 miles away on the Golan Heights, and a question of values and strategy in Washington has far more immediate ramifications in Jerusalem.
The divide over Syria has some parallels in the 2011 Egyptian revolution: Nearly all American leaders favored the democratic upheaval, while top Israeli officials feared — with justification, it turns out — that their enemies in the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in a Democratic Egypt. With the Brotherhood now holding the Egyptian presidency and a 43-year peace accords hanging by a thread, Israel has looked warily toward any potential regime change in Syria, and to the arming of the opposition in a country possessing chemical weapons on its northern border.
“The Israelis see the footage out of Syria and are appalled,” said David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “But Israel does not feel — partly because of its utter preoccupation with Iran — that it has to speak up other than to condemn the slaughter.”
While Israeli leaders indicated muted support for regime change last year, they've said little publicly about the country. And where initially a rapid change of control could have distanced Syria from Iran, its key backer and Israel's primary regional foe, the elongated struggle has diminished hopes for an orderly transition.
Israelis feel a “lingering sense of worry,” Makovsky said, over the possibility that in the chaos after Assad’s government falls — a date that appears to be drawing closer— Hezbollah or other extremist groups could get hold of the war-torn state’s chemical weapon stockpile.
“There are also people who came to Syria from outside – from Global Jihad and al-Qaida and other Islamists – meaning that as long as the fighting carries on we will have even greater chaos in Syria the day after Assad,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday, according to the Jerusalem Post.
U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly met with Israel’s leaders over those fears over the weekend, one of a string of recent visits by high profile American security and diplomatic officials. A White House official described the Israeli government as fully behind the Administration’s careful Syria policy, and deeply concerned about the shape and pace of change. The official suggested that Romney’s hawkishness is out of step with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“For [many Republicans] it’s boiled down to do you support the opposition by giving them arms or you’re not supporting them,” said the official said. “That’s not how the Israelis see it. They see a bunch of changing regimes and Islamism governments with massive trepidation.”
“Romney will be in a very different place than them on Syria,” the official said.
Some of Romney's supporters are also alert to the dynamic.
“With Syria you’ve seen the same disagreements and lack of a coherent policy on the Israeli side as in our own policies,” said one Republican foreign policy aide on Capitol Hill. ”But the deeper Romney gets on the policy solutions in Syria, the more likely he’s going to run afoul of at least some Israeli policymakers.”
Indeed, Israeli foreign policy hands close to Netanyahu are viewing the unfolding situation in Syria with alarm, and hardly see a guarantee that a new regime will be more hospitable than Assad, seen by many as the devil they knew, and as a crafty autocrat with whom a peace deal might have been possible.
“The region is in trouble and Israel is in the eye of the storm,” said Dore Gold, who said Israel feels increasingly isolated in an increasingly Islamist region.
“Mubarak’s fall in Egypt created a vacuum in which al Qaeda units from all over the region are pouring in,” he said. “There is a vacuum that is being created in Syria now as well that is now attracting al Qaeda and other extremist groups, and that’s giving Israel a lot of heartburn.”
Romney’s foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, didn’t respond to repeated inquiries about the candidate’s policy views vis-à-vis the Israelis’.
Romney advisers have offered little indication into what Romney will say overseas, but his past statements have sharply criticized the Obama administration over relatively subtle policy differences.
“President Obama can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps,” Romney said in May amid revelations of new massacres, calling on the US to arm the rebels. “The [Kofi] Annan ‘peace’ plan — which President Obama still supports — has merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught. The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves.”
On Thursday, as Russia and China blocked a resolution to continue the UN’s mission in Syria with tougher conditions, Romney again attacked Obama for not taking the lead.
“While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations,” Romney said in a statement on Thursday.
The Obama Administration, however, has tried to avoid directly arming the opposition, in part out of an uncertainty over who will emerge at the head of it.
“In truth, it’s a pretty cost-free criticism for Romney to say arm the opposition; he says it, but he doesn’t have to be responsible for who gets the arms,” said Hussein Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
Undoubtedly, Israelis would rather the United States be involved in what many now see as a likely transition from Assad to whatever replaces him, but they are less likely than Americans of either party to anticipate with any warmth the devil they don't know.