Israel's ex-spy chief sees opportunity in Syria crisis

In an interview, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy says a collapse of the Assad regime in Syria could deal a blow to Iran's regional ambitions and nuclear program

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jerjenaz, near Idlib, Feb.17. The sign reads, "We read a prayer for dying and go for protest." Former Israeli Mossad chief Efraim Halevy says Israel should prod Western nations and Russia to forge a common policy on Syria.

Instability in Syria poses stark security risks for Israel, but it also offers a chance to deliver a stinging blow to Iran’s regional ambitions and even its nuclear program, Israel’s former national security adviser says.

Israel in recent weeks has been consumed by a debate over the wisdom of launching a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. But Efraim Halevy, who also led the Mossad spy agency from 1998 to 2002, believes Israel should also focus on exploiting the opportunity to strike Iran politically and diplomatically through the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a staunch ally of Iran.

Mr. Halevy, now a leading intelligence analyst here, said in an interview that Israel should start to look at Iran and Syria as two sides of the same problem.

Q. You’ve called Syria the Achilles’ heel of Iran. What do you mean?

A. Iran has invested enormous efforts in trying to secure Syria as a major partner. The Alawite [Muslim] minority is very close to the Shiites in Iran. The Syrian Army is mainly based on Alawite command and has units that are purely Alawite. This makes the Iranian investment all the more important.

Syria is also the conduit for Iran’s arming of the Hezbollah Shiite forces in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. If the regime falls in Syria and the Iranians are expelled, this is going to be a horrendous defeat for Iran. ...

Q. How does Israel ensure that Iran is defeated in Syria? Wouldn’t it backfire if Israel were seen to be involved?

A. Israel shouldn’t be directly involved for obvious reasons. Once Israel enters the fray, this becomes an Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Muslim confrontation, which deflects attention from the main issues of Sunni-Shiite, and the Shiite repression of a majority in a foreign country. Israel should promote through its channels with major powers in the world a dialogue between leaders in Western nations and Russia to try to forge a common policy on Syria, which would entail mutual concessions at the American and Russian level.

Q. Recently Israel has been very focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the debate over a strike. It is doing enough on Syria?

A. I don’t have any evidence that Israel is working on this, but I hope some work is being done. Israel has certain interests in Syria which have to be taken into account. The ultimate resolution of this crisis should not leave an Iranian presence in Syria with a weakened Assad. I don’t want to see Iran having its own finger on the button of Syria’s strategic weapons. Israel must make sure this does not happen.

Q. You’ve said that a defeat in Syria would deal a blow to Iran’s nuclear program. Why?

A. The issue of Syria and of Iran’s nuclear capability are interconnected. You cannot divorce them. Iran’s effort to achieve nuclear capability and its effort to entrench itself in Syria are part of the same multifaceted regional problem. One of the mistakes we’ve made up to this point is to deal with these issues separately.

Q. Not that long ago, many in Israel were quietly hoping Assad’s regime would survive because he’s predictable in his relations with Israel and is the “devil you know.” With reports that Al Qaeda-linked terrorists might be seeking a stronghold in Syria, do you worry that Assad might be replaced with an extremist Sunni regime that is even more hostile toward Israel?

A. I don’t think this is in the cards. The way things are at present, any replacement of Assad is better.

Q. Even an extremist Sunni regime?

A. The Sunnis have been oppressed by the Alawites. They are looking for freedom and dignity and all the things of the “Arab Spring.” They won’t come to power in order to launch an effort against Israel. Their immediate concerns would be to stabilize the situation inside Syria and move as quickly as possible to alleviate the pressure on the society.

Q. There have been a lot of fears that Assad might try to move Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons and sophisticated missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Though everyone is talking about a military strike against Iran, what are the chances of such an Israeli strike in Syria to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands?

A. I don’t want to preempt Israeli operations or planning. All I can say is that there are certain things, if carried out in Syria or Lebanon, that would be matters of grave concern to Israel, and Israel would not be able to accept.

Edmund Sanders of The Los Angeles Times in Jerusalem interviewed Efraim Halevy for the Global Viewpoint Network.

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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