Israel Conflicted on Assad

Apparently contradictory statements on Syria have emerged, shedding light on the dilemma Israel faces on its northeastern border.

Accelerated U.S.-Russian diplomacy has brought global powers back into the Syria crisis. Yet a major power on Syria’s doorstep has been less vocal. What’s Israel looking for in the land across the Golan?

In recent weeks there have been conflicting reports of Jerusalem’s approach towards the regime of Bashar al Assad. In one, a “senior Israeli official” said that if Assad retaliates against Israel for its attacks on targets inside Syria, then Israel might move to topple Assad. A few days later, in reporting by the Times of London, a high ranking Israeli intelligence officer from the northern command had claimed that Israel prefers that Assad survives, especially considering the alternative: having to deal with radical Muslims. But the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) spokesman said this last argument is unfounded, based on his own knowledge of the opinions of Israel’s military intelligence.

Either way there should be more than one perspective in Israel’s military intelligence, which is responsible among others for delivering an alert if Syria were to confront Israel. The necessity of having more than one view is a bitter lesson from the 1973 war, when until almost the last minute the head of Israel’s military intelligence thought that there was a low probability that Syria and Egypt would attack his country. Others, including inside the military intelligence, were convinced that war was about to start, but their voices were not heard. The outcome is well known: Israel was caught unprepared.

Israel must not be surprised again about Syria, which means encouraging diversity of opinions. Obviously leaking a professional evaluation to a British newspaper is not the best way to express opinions, assuming it was not authorized.

As to the opinion itself: that Israel prefers Assad (“better the devil you know”), this is kind of a reaction, a return to the first days of the civil war in Syria. But this was the first Israeli response. Apparently some in Israel have continually held or went back to holding this opinion, maybe following Assad’s latest successes in the battlefield. After many setbacks, Assad has been striking back against the rebels. So if Assad is going to stay in power, then Israel might as well continue to deal with him.

Another reason Israel might express its willingness to accept Assad: it wanted to calm him after the first anonymous statement had threatened his regime. Israel does not want Assad to focus on her, let alone think of some kind of preemptive strike against her.

Yet there isn’t necessarily a contradiction between the two Israeli announcements, assuming both of them are authentic. After all, Israel could tolerate Assad. But if he insists on delivering advanced weapons to Hezbollah, Israel might assume it is better to get rid of him. In that sense, better late than never. Without Assad, Syria would probably fall apart, and in those circumstances it might be easier for Israel to launch an attack to prevent Hezbollah from capturing sophisticated weapons.

This would be the end of an era. Since 1970 Israel and the Assad family clashed directly, in the 1973 and in the 1982 wars, and indirectly, during the prolonged struggle between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria’s ally in Lebanon. On the other hand, Syria has kept the “peace” in the Golan Heights since 1973. There could have been a terrible war between the two states, including long-range missiles hitting Israeli rear areas. It did not happen because both Assads, father and son, felt it was not worth it. They cared more about their family business—controlling Syria. Indeed a war with Israel literally could have been the end for them. Israel might not have tried to assassinate them during the campaign, but Syria would have absorbed a major blow. This could have weakened the Assad regime to such a degree that his rule would have been at risk.

So for almost forty years Israel could have jeopardized Assad’s grip on Syria. Destruction of Assad’s air force and elite units could have caused his downfall. This is even truer now. Israel may continue to tolerate Assad, but not if he becomes too much of a burden to securing their own interests.

Ehud Eilam, Ph.D. is the representative in the USA of IsraelDefense magazine. He used to conduct research in different branches of the Israeli military, as a private contractor for the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Image: Flickr/Maxim B. CC BY-SA 2.0.