Israel Shifts Uneasily Over Syria

JERUSALEM — Grappling with the fallout on their country of a possible forced removal from power of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, Israeli leaders are fluctuating between wariness, cautious optimism, and self-righteousness.

Last week, as the toll exacted by the 11-month Syrian uprising was mounting dramatically, Israelis were offered by their prime minister the customary appraisal that their country is like “a villa in the Mideast jungle.”

“We have received a reminder about what kind of a neighborhood we live in,” reiterated Benjamin Netanyahu, while delivering the customary recipe: “Developing Israel’s strength.”

Netanyahu’s statement prudently reflected the lowest common denominator in an array of tentative attitudes and positions with regard to the chaos gripping Israel’s northeastern neighbor. Israel officially adopted a policy of noninterference in the Syrian crisis. But that was before the uprising evolved into civil war.

When asked by Army Radio whether Israel was in contact with the Syrian opposition, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon retorted rather obliquely, “Whether there’s contact or not, don’t expect me to discuss these things in the media.”

Only three months ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak anticipated that Assad’s ouster was “not a matter of months” but of “many weeks.” His upbeat evaluation was that Syria would cease to constitute the strategic linchpin in the alliance of Israel’s foes.

“When the Assad family falls, it will be a major blow to the radical axis led by Iran … it will weaken Hezbollah and the backing for Hamas, and it will deprive the Iranians of a real stronghold in the Arab world … this is something positive for Israel,” Barak predicted back in December.

Israel launched two inconclusive wars on Syria’s allies across its northern and southern fronts: in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon and in 2008-2009 against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However, the upbeat picture (for Israel) depicted by Barak has been but one of the many shifts in operational assessments made within Israeli intelligence circles as they nervously monitor the way the region transforms. Contingency plans for worst-case scenarios have been drawn time and again.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory in post-Mubarak Egypt has caused concerns that the “Arab Spring” turmoil was actually an “Islamist winter,” Syria has long been perceived as a buttress of stability against a possible takeover by Muslim fundamentalists.

Israeli officials like to recall how Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, bloodily handled a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency back in the early 1980s. Until recently, they also pointed out the fact that calm has largely prevailed along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since the ceasefire agreement following the 1973 war.

But last May and June, in the midst of the Syrian upheaval, Palestinian refugees were allowed to breach the Golan Heights ceasefire disengagement lines, and they marched toward the Israeli fence. Chaos ensued, with scores of protesters killed by Israeli soldiers. Israel blamed Assad for the incidents, in light of the latter’s warnings that outside intervention in his country could inflame the region.

This concern eased for a while, replaced a few weeks ago by the warning of Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, that the Alawite minority, fearing reprisal by the Sunni majority, might seek shelter in the occupied Syrian territory, as Syria disintegrates into autonomous ethnic-held cantons.

The way Israel views Assad has undergone profound fluctuations over the past decade. In 2005, at the height of the “regime change” ideology advocated by former U.S. President George W. Bush, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cautioned against such a strategy being applied to Syria, calling Assad “the devil we know.”

Sharon’s contention was that preserving a predictable leader rather than having to face an uncertain successor served Israel’s interest. Assad could be trusted.

Two years later, however, when it became clear that Syria had covertly engaged in the building of a nuclear reactor with North Korean know-how, Assad suddenly ceased to be considered a conventional leader. The nuclear reactor was eventually bombed by Israel in 2007.

“What happens the day Assad is toppled?” is now the haunting question.

In the wake of Russia’s and China’s veto of the U.N. Security Council Resolution, which in effect called for Assad’s departure, Israeli defense experts are pondering again whether, in the final analysis, Syria might not consider triggering a war against Israel.

The “I’m going down and taking you down with me” speculation is that Assad might ultimately resort to transfer advanced surface-to-surface missiles and alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah.

“The immediate concern is the huge stockpiles of chemicals, biological [weapons] strategic capabilities,” the recently appointed commander of the Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, was quoted last month in the Israeli media as saying.

“For the time being, no indications exist that it’s being materialized and that Assad will try to initiate a fight against Israel,” Ron Ben-Yishai, a prominent defense analyst cautioned in the daily Yedioth Aharonoth.

According to the latest estimates by Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi, Hezbollah and Hamas already together possess an arsenal of some 200,000 missiles and rockets supplied by Syria and Iran and aimed at Israel.

Another scenario contends that, after Assad’s eventual fall, such weapons could be smuggled and reach Islamist militants in the same way that Libyan weapons armed Hamas with more powerful weaponry as a result of the civil war against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

Then there’s the other strategic wildcard — the conjecture that Western powers might in the end consider military intervention in Syria in order to stop the bloodletting and the anarchy — and, with it, the theory that such undeterred foreign determination against its ally could finally dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program.

“There are those who believe that an attack on Syria for the sake of human rights may prevent a war on Iran for the sake of blocking its nuclear program,” analyst Zvi Barel wrote last week in the liberal daily Haaretz.

(Inter Press Service)