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What Israel really thinks about the Syrian uprising

For four decades, the border that Israel shares with its most vocal foe -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime -- has also been its quietest. But now, that seems to be changing.

A mortar shell fired from Syria hit an Israeli military post on on the Golan Heights on Sunday, prompting the Israel Defense Forces to fire a guided missile at the Syrian mortar crew responsible for the attack. On Monday, events repeated themselves -- a mortar shell fell on Israel-controlled territory, prompting the Israel Defense Forces to retaliate. The exchange of fire occurs at the same time as a fresh outbreak of violence to the south, where Gaza-based militants have fired over 120 rockets into Israel.

But one crisis at a time: The Israeli outlook toward the Syrian uprising, and its calculation in responding to cross-border violence, has been pretty ambiguous -- so I decided to call up someone who could shed some light on what's going on. Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, served as his country's chief negotiator with the Syrian regime in the mid-1990s -- during the more optimistic days of the Oslo peace process, when it seemed possible to hash out a conflict-ending agreement between the two longtime foes.

To hear Rabinovich tell it, Israel's policy toward the Syrian revolt would make Hamlet proud.  "The policy is very passive," he says. "When you don't have great choices, you don't really push hard for any of them...I would say it is ambivalent, with a slight preference to see [Assad] go than to see him stay."

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

 

Foreign Policy: How would a renewed confrontation along the Golan affect the Syrian uprising?

Itamar Rabinovich: I'd say Israel has very studiously refrained from intervening in this conflict, because it did not want to embarrass the opposition. Assad's line from Day One is that this is not a genuine domestic uprising, but a plot hatched by the U.S. and Israel -- and by doing anything that looks like helping the opposition, including humanitarian help, Israel would have embarrassed the opposition.

Clearly the Syrian army, in its present condition, is no match for the IDF. Israel could inflict significant punishment on them and in that way, let us say, help the rebels.  But what [the rebels] would gain militarily, they would lose politically. Which may be the regime's game.

FP: Do you think Israeli policymakers, in their heart of hearts, want the Syrian uprising to succeed? Or are they afraid of what comes after Assad?

IR: My argument is that there was ambivalence with regards to Bashar al-Assad -- we just found out recently that even Netanyahu indirectly negotiated with him in 2011, through the State Department. But after the 2006 war, following the damage that Israel sustained in Lebanon [at the hands of Assad's ally Hezbollah], and the discovery in 2007 of the North Korean nuclear reactor [in northeastern Syria], I think that changed Israeli attitudes.

In 2005, famously, when George W. Bush told Ariel Sharon that he would be very happy to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, Sharon said, "he's the devil we know." That was a clear articulation of a perspective that says: He's a devil, but the alternative may be some form of Islamist government.

I think that changed. Israel would like to see him go because it would be a blow to Iran. His staying on -- the anarchy becoming more expensive, more and more jihadist elements penetrating into Syria -- I think it's seen by Israel as a negative trend. Therefore, I think on balance, though not in an overwhelming way, Israel would prefer to see him go.

FP: Does Israel push for some sort of intervention to resolve the conflict, and therefore stem the chaos?

IR: I don't think Israel pushes for intervention. The policy is very passive. When you don't have great choices, you don't really push hard for any of them. If Israel was told that Assad was going to be replaced by a liberal, Westward-looking government, you know, it would be quite happy. But this is not a very likely scenario. The more likely scenario is instability, maybe fragmentation, maybe chaos, maybe Islamist takeover -there are lots of negative possibilities here. So I would say it is ambivalent, with a slight preference to see him go than to see him stay.

FP: As someone who has studied Syria for a long time, were you surprised to see this outbreak of popular unrest?

IR: You know, the problem with political prediction is this: You can say this is not tenable, this can't go on forever. But nobody could tell you that in December 2010 someone would sent themselves ablaze in Tunisia, and this would topple that regime and spread to Egypt, and so forth.

So we were aware - people wrote that you could expect this unrest to manifest somewhere. Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Even in Iran itself, in 2009, there was a very serious outburst that was very violently suppressed. In Iran, I can tell you [the current situation] is untenable - this is a civilized country with a sophisticated elite, where power has been hijacked by the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards. And at some point the population will rise in arms. When? I don't know.

Syria was the same thing. Here you had a corrupt, tyrannical regime dominated by a minority group - to lord over the rest of the population forever was untenable. But you know, it lasted 40 years. It could have lasted more, or it could break out suddenly.

Sebastian Scheiner - Pool/Getty Images

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Did Petraeus mistress reveal new Benghazi details?

So here is a bizarre twist in the David Petraeus resignation saga.

Paula Broadwell, the biographer revealed as the woman having a secret affair with the now-former CIA director, gave a talk at the University of Denver on Oct. 26 in which she appeared to reveal sensitive, maybe even classified, information about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

The most interesting revelation is her claim that the CIA was holding several Libyan militia members prisoner, which may have prompted the attack. (Though she also sought to explain the Obama administration's initial view that the attack was linked to the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islam polemic that sparked riots across the Muslim world.)

[UPDATE: The CIA has denied holding prisoners at the annex, according to the DailyBeast's Eli Lake. The Washington Post's Greg Miller adds in a tweet, "CIA adamant that Broadwell claims about agency holding prisoners at Benghazi are not true."]

Broadwell also said flatly that forces at the CIA annex had requested backup from a special Delta Force group she called the CINC's in extremis force. It was not clear whether she was basing her comments on an Oct. 26 Fox News report by Jennifer Griffin, or whether her information came from elsewhere. (Griffin refers to it as "Commanders [sic] in Extremis Force," but does not mention Delta Force. The report does, however, cite "a source on the ground at the time of the attack" saying that "the team inside the CIA annex had captured three Libyan attackers and was forced to hand them over to the Libyans. U.S. officials do not know what happened to those three attackers and whether they were released by the Libyan forces.")

A CIA spokeswoman disputed the Fox News account at the time, saying, "no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate." The agency later released a timeline of that evening's events that cast doubt on Griffin's story; the Pentagon also released its own timeline.

In any case, Broadwell's remarks, which were first reported by Arutz Sheva, are very interesting in light of this week's big news, as well as the Wall Street Journal's revelation that the FBI found that Broadwell was in possession of classified documents (though she was never charged with any crime).

Her comments came in response to a questioner who asked her to comment on Petraeus's handling of the events in Libya. I've transcribed them in full here:

Well, just to create some context for those in the room. As you know, the ambassaador in Benghazi was killed along with a couple of security agents who happened to be CIA security, paramilitary forces. That just came out today in Fox News.

But the challenge has been the fog of war. And the greater challenge is that it's political hunting season, and so this whole thing has been turned into a very political sort of arena, if you will.

But the facts that came out today were that the ground forces there at the CIA annex, which is different from the consulate, were requesting reinforcements.

They were requesting the, what's called the CINC's in extremis force -- a group of Delta Force operators, our very, most talented guys we have in the military. They could have come and reinforced the consulate and the CIA annex that were under attack.

Now, I don't know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually, um, had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. So that's still being vetted.

The challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his new position, he's not allowed to communicate with the press. So he's known all of this -- they had correspondence with the CIA station chief in, in Libya. Within 24 hours they kind of knew what was happening.

But if you remember at the time -- the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo -- there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world. Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us.

So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton's shoes or the president's shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it's true that we have signal intelligence that shows the, um, the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort. Um, so we'll find out the facts soon enough.

As a former intel officer it's frustrating to me because it reveals our sources and methods. I don't think the public necessarily needs to know all of that. It is a tragedy that we lost an ambassador and two other government officials. Um, and something -- there was a failure in the system because there was additional security requested. But it's frustrating to see the sort of political aspect of what's going on with this whole investigation.

Um, so the most recent news that came out was a Fox News report by Jennifer Griffin. I got it on a distribution list I'm on, and it has some pretty insightful stuff in it, if you want to look for it."

In her prepared remarks, Broadwell, who attended the university's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, spoke at length of her career ambitions. "My longterm goal had always been to become national security advisor," she said.

That's probably not going to happen now.

You can watch the video below. The relevant portion begins at minute 35: