For more than two years, Israel has wisely kept a low profile as civil war has engulfed its northern neighbor Syria. But this past week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his air force to strike targets in and around Damascus, significantly raising Israel’s profile in the conflict. As Israel and America consider their next steps in that unstable environment, it would be wise to remember how Israel gradually got engaged in the Lebanese civil war and found nothing but frustration and failure as its well intentioned policies yielded unanticipated effects and unintended consequences.
Syria and Lebanon share the same bitterly sectarian politics. Both are the creations of French imperialism. And both were misruled too long by minority sects that spawned vicious and violent civil wars. Israel began interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs in the 1960s when the Palestinian movement built its headquarters there. Starting with an air attack on Beirut International Airport in 1968, successive Israeli governments got more and more sucked into the swamp of Lebanese politics and warlord conflict.
In 1978, Israeli built a proxy army in south Lebanon and created a security zone to defend northern Israel from terror attacks. Similarly, there is talk now in Israel of a security zone in Syria and perhaps a Druze collaboration partner. In 1982, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon to create a “new Middle East” that would destroy the PLO and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Instead, Operation Peace for Galilee led to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Marine barracks bombing, two attacks on the American embassy, an eighteen-year-long insurgency in south Lebanon, the awakening of Lebanese Shia militancy and creation of Hezbollah.
Peace for Galilee was followed by Operation Accountability in 1993, Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1995 and finally Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Israel’s Lebanese allies were abandoned to their fate. But the war continued across the border. In 2006, a half million Israelis were displaced from their homes during the thirty-four-day war with Hezbollah. Today Hezbollah has more weapons than ever before.
At every stage in Israel’s disastrous encounter in Lebanon, Israeli leaders said they were acting in self-defense. For the most part that was true. But its actions had consequences it did not anticipate. It learned very painfully that its intelligence agencies, among the very best in the world, did not really understand Lebanon’s internal struggles very well and could not predict accurately how Israeli military actions would play out. By the time Ehud Barak pulled the Israel Defense Forces out of Lebanon in 2000, Israelis had paid a terrible price—more than 1,400 soldiers killed and almost 200 civilian deaths.
At almost every stage of this military odyssey, successive American presidents defended Israel’s right to defend itself. Ronald Reagan was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Sharon’s new Middle East—until it unraveled. Some of his spymasters, such as the legendary CIA officer Bob Ames, warned Reagan it would end in disaster. Ames later lost his life trying to make his government’s policy work out better than he had predicted. He died when the U.S. embassy in Beirut was blown up the first time.
Of course Israel does have a right to defend itself. But increased Israeli intervention in Syria only helps validate Bashar Assad’s ridiculous argument that he is facing a conspiracy to use Al Qaeda terrorists to further Israeli and American interests. Many Arabs and Muslims will fall prey to conspiracy theories that do nothing to help the legitimate Syrian opposition in their fight for freedom.
Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise—the al-Nusra front, which last month openly proclaimed its loyalty to Al Qaeda’s amir Ayman al-Zawahiri—is eager to get beyond Assad and fight Israel. Its leader uses the nom de guerre Muhammad al-Golani to remind his followers of Syria’s aspirations for the return of its land lost in 1967. No one wants to see al-Nusra inherit Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal.
Israeli air strikes, no matter how brilliantly conducted, cannot produce a stable Syrian outcome that keeps terrorists such as Hezbollah and al-Nusra from acquiring new and more deadly weapons. Israel needs to exercise extreme judgment and discretion in using force. It has been right to stay out until now. What seems vital on one day—to stop a missile shipment from getting to Hezbollah—may in retrospect seem trivial next to the events set in motion by military action.
In the mid-1980s, Israeli filmmakers produced a movie about Israel’s experience in Lebanon and the impact it was having on the IDF and Israeli society. Ricochet was a big hit in Israel and the title is an apt metaphor for Israel’s experience in Lebanon. Every attempt to influence Lebanese politics and society has ricocheted, not bringing what Israel wanted but instead resulting in an unintended, always unpleasant and difficult outcome. There is no reason to believe the future in Syria will be any different.
Bruce Riedel is director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues on the staff of the National Security Council.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alexey Goral. CC BY-SA 3.0.