About a month ago, a new rumor started to spread in Washington that Israel did not want to see Assad fall. Those critical of Israel privately said that the reason the Obama administration was not pressuring Syria the way it had pressured Libya was because of Israel. In fact, the Israeli government has been extremely careful not to express its opinion regarding the uprising in Syria because it is an internal issue. Nonetheless, senior academics and former Israeli officials have been widely interviewed as private citizens in the international media. The main view voiced is that it is better for Israel to work with the “devil we know, rather than the devil we don’t know.”
Another explanation for Israeli policy is that it follows the general policy of the West. The June 10 editorial in Haaretz listed the main reasons why the West still prefers Bashar al-Assad despite the massacres of Syrian civilians that his army has carried out: “Syria is perceived as a country that is capable of blocking Hezbollah, controlling the level of Iranian involvement in Lebanon and aiding the U.S. in its war against terrorism in Iraq. These are serious considerations and the reason why the West continues to hope that Assad will agree to enact serious reforms without being forced out.”
The editorial then suggests that Israel must follow the same policy: “Israel does not have the liberty to pursue a different policy than that of Western nations.”
What is the Israeli interest in what happens in Syria? Let there be no mistake about Assad’s regime. It has been an enemy of Israel. It has been caught red-handed developing nuclear weapons, which were not needed for dealing with Lebanon or Jordan but rather to threaten Israel. It has hundreds of Scud missiles, many of which are armed with chemical warheads. Assad is a strategic ally of Iran. He has provided sanctuary and support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Most of the Hezbollah rockets that were used against Israel in 2006 were manufactured in Syria.
Yet it could be argued that he has not opened up the Golan front having understood the deterrent strength of Israel. Those who prefer seeing Assad stay are probably persuaded by this last point, especially if it is not at all clear whether his successors, especially if they are from radical Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, will understand the rules of deterrence the same way.
Nevertheless the fall of the Assad regime would change the landscape of the Middle East. Iran would lose its main regional ally in the Arab world. Most of the re-supply of Hezbollah is by means of Iranian cargo planes that land at Damascus International Airport. The weapons are then transported by truck into Lebanon. That line of supply would be cut, and Hezbollah would be severely weakened and isolated.
While after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah was admired by most Syrians for standing up to Israel, if Assad should fall, there would be a strong wave of anti-Iranian and anti-Hizbollah sentiment that would spread across the Syrian population, since both had been active in directly backing the Assad regime’s tactics of repression of the Syrian people. Indeed all Iranian proxy forces would be weakened across the Middle East, from Hamas to the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
In the short term, there is always the risk that if Assad is cornered and feels he could fall in a matter of a few weeks, he may try to escalate conflict as his last resort. The Saudi editor of al-Arabiyya noted on June 13 that there is a Syrian military buildup on Lebanon’s northern border and he expressed his fear about Syrian military action in this sector. Israel will obviously have to carefully monitor whether the Syrians are planning to heat up the Israeli-Syrian border or the Israeli-Lebanese border in the same way.
Obviously, Israel cannot get involved in the internal affairs of Syria. But it cannot ignore the brutality the regime is using against its own people. Israel does not have to announce to the world that it prefers to see Assad’s regime fall from power. But it is important that the US and its allies know that Israel has no special interest in Assad staying in power. If Israel wants someday to have a new relationship with the Syrian people, it should also make it apparent to them, as well, that it is not the reason why Assad has remained in power for so long in the current crisis.