Amid Syria's turmoil, Israel sees Assad as the lesser evil

While Syria's 40-year Assad regime has fought multiple conflicts with Israel, it has also been a stable neighbor – making Israelis uneasy about the prospects of Islamists gaining power next door.

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone, taken Tuesday, May 3, Syrian men carry bread loaves during a protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, in the coastal town of Banias, Syria. The turmoil has made neighboring Israel uneasy.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

As Syria's Assad regime buckles under mass protests for reform and democracy, neighboring Israel is watching with unease.

True, the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would ostensibly remove a key player in the Iranian-led alliance threatening the Jewish state on several fronts. But Syria under Mr. Assad has been a stable neighbor and maintained a regional balance that officials and analysts fear could crumble – providing an opening for hard-line Islamist groups.

"I prefer the political extremism of Assad over religious extremism," says Ayoub Kara, a parliament member from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. "We don’t want religious extremism on the border."

Two worst-case scenarios envision a boost for groups considered Islamic radicals. In one, Iran could gain greater influence in post-Assad Syria. In the second, contradictory scenario, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood could control a new government.

While most analysts agree that the fall of Assad’s regime would remove a reliable ally of Iran, the Islamic Republic might use that power vacuum to forge a closer bridge to Hezbollah or gain sway over a fledgling Syrian ruler. And even the weakening of Assad's rule could give Iran an opportunity to expand its influence in Syria, by propping up Assad.

Israel is also afraid that if Syria’s Sunni majority were to replace the Alawite minority now in charge, it would give the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood a dominant role in the country. Even if the Sunni leadership were secular, analysts in Israel said they are likely to take even more of a hard line against Israel because of historic ties to Sunni Muslims in the Palestinian territories.

"Assad is definitely an enemy who helps Hamas and Hezbollah. But the disintegration is frightening," says Alon Liel, a former managing director of the Israeli foreign ministry who has advocated in the past for Israel-Syrian peace talks. "There is no one opposition group that can take control of Syria. It’s quite a mess."

Syria's Assad: A stable neighbor

In the past three decades, Israel and Syria have fought three wars with each other and another by proxy in Lebanon. Since then, Israel has accused Syria of sponsoring low-level violence in third party countries that occasionally flares up into a limited conflict, like Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006 and with Hamas in 2008-09.

During the same period, three rounds of peace talks have failed.

Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Mr. Sharon once slammed an Israeli who suggested that regime change in Syria. "Sharon said, 'Are you crazy?' " he recalls. "The best for the time being, is having a Bashar Assad who is fighting for his legitimacy.' "

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To be sure, Syria provides support for Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, and for Hamas on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Both groups have fired rockets into Israel.

Assad allows Iranian weapons to cross Syria’s border with Lebanon to Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 and has since rearmed. Syria also provides a headquarters of Hamas, which fought a three-week war with Israel two years ago. In previous years, Israeli military exercises in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war, have escalated fear about an outbreak of war. And in 2007, Israel bombed a site in Syria believed to be the location of a nuclear reaction in construction.

But Syria’s authoritarian regime has honored the cease-fire lines separating the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. As a result, those lines have been Israel’s most quiet border over the past three decades.

Indeed, on a recent visit to the Golan Heights during the demonstrations, the border region was calm. An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment whether the turmoil in Syria had prompted the army to change its deployment – a move that could spike tension between the countries.

Why Israeli officials are quiet on Syrian turmoil

As in the case of Egypt’s wave of protests against former President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli government officials have refused to discuss the turmoil in Syria.

While Western countries have condemned the regime’s repression of protests, Israel’s government has maintained a studied silence for fear that Damascus may seize on the comments to recast the unrest as Israeli meddling in domestic affairs. Mr. Kara, the legislator, is one of the few officials to speak out on the issue.

Officials have also expressed worry if Assad’s regime, in a fit of desperation to cling to power, would foment a limited border conflict with Israel to distract attention from the domestic unrest.

"We don’t want to be seen as part of the story. There are elements on both sides that could use any sort of Israeli involvement to accuse the other side," said an Israeli official, explaining the silence from the government. "We are close to the ground, and we could easily get pulled into this. We have to be more sensitive than other countries [in commenting on the violence] … We are not exactly surprised by what Assad is doing. We knew what kind of a regime this was."

Why peace proponents are becoming more cautious

Kara, a Druze Arab, says he has been trying to help Syrian opposition leaders in Europe open a channel of negotiations on reform with representatives of the Assad regime in order to dampen the turmoil. A gradual process of reform under the current government is preferable to continuing unrest which could empower Islamists from the country’s Sunni majority, who he says are radicals.

But the protests have prompted former proponents of peace talks to reconsider. For years, some Israelis have argued that an accord to return the Golan Heights to Syria would break Iran’s influence and would be less complicated than a deal with the Palestinians.

But, with Assad’s legitimacy in question, the thinking goes, Israel should be more cautious about taking security risks. Indeed, if Israel had already negotiated peace with Assad, the turmoil would have put that deal at risk.

"At the moment, Israel's 'Syrian option' will be shelved," wrote Itamar Rabinovitch, an Israeli expert on Syria and a former negotiator, in the daily Yediot Ahronot. "There is no sense in making a deal like that with a regime whose stability is strongly in question."

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