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Israel faces strategic uncertainty over Syrian uprising   

Arab News - 24 February, 2012
Author: Hassan Barari

The unfolding events in Syria have posed a question that Israelis still grapple with: How should Israel react to the crisis in Syria? The public debate in Israel with regard to the best scenario that can happen in Syria is far from conclusive. While, Israelis on the whole find Syria under President Bashar Assad a hard nut to crack, yet his demise is not necessarily in the best interest for Tel Aviv for the short run.

By and large, Israelis are torn by two schools of thoughts or let us say between two sentiments. The downfall of Assad regime can deal a decisive blow to the Iranian regime. Syria, according to this view is a linchpin in the Iranian power network. Iran in this case will be without allies or proxies. Therefore, Tehran will get further isolated and emasculated, a step that Tel Aviv welcomes. The Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor said lately that “if the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.”

And yet, the collapse of the Syrian regime may trigger unprecedented level of uncertainty. In this case, Syria without a strong central authority could descend into mayhem. This situation would present new challenges for Israel to deal with. Therefore, the second school of thoughts makes that case that the survival of a strong central authority under Assad is better.

Although the majority of Israelis subscribe to the first school of thoughts, yet the Israeli government and leading strategic analysts predict a chaotic post-Assad Syria. Their prediction of the chaos scenario has to do with basic facts such as the loyalty of a huge bunch of the army to Assad; Iranian economic aid; the lack of appetite for external powers to interfere militarily; and finally the low participation in demonstrations in major cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

This issue was debated at all forums in Israel among them the annual Herzliya conference that was held a few weeks ago. The most outspoken on this issue in particular was Ehud Barak, the defense minister. Warning and commenting on a possible chaotic situation in Syria, Barak drew the attention to the impact of chaos on the delicate balance in Lebanon. In his words, “We are following in particular the possible transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah, which break the delicate balance in Lebanon.”

The question here is whether Israel will intercept and attack a convoy of trucks transferring weapons or not. Any reckless attack has the potential of changing the dynamics of the crisis in Syria. The Syrian regime in this case will be in a position to claim that Israel is part of the “conspiracy” against the regime. Such a thoughtless attack, if materialized, will only weaken the opposition groups who have been trying to topple the regime. For security considerations, Israel is unlikely to attack unless the weapon being transferred can change the strategic balance between Israel and Hezbollah and this is ruled out.

That said, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israeli decision makers are in a state of uncertainty over what Israel should do to protect its interests in the near future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is careful not to say anything that could give the Syrian regime ammunitions that the demonstration in Syria has come as part of a wider Zionist-American plan to dethrone Assad. Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann and Barak have been on record calling for the fall of the regime. Another point of grave concern for Israelis is the infiltrations of Al-Qaeda fighters into Syria. The assumption is that the vacuum created by the demonstrations and the increasing weakness of the regime have provided Al-Qaeda with the long-awaited opportunity to act in Syria.

In brief, Israel’s calculations are more complicated than the mere crisis in Syria. Some Israeli analysts even go as far as saying that the Assad regime may launch preemptive attack on Israel. Although this probability is low, no one can predict for sure whether Iran will push Assad for such a move to drag the whole region in a different conflict. Saddam Hussein did it in the 1991 war hoping that Israel would react thus torpedoing the Arab-American coalition designed to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Will Israel act responsibly this time? It is difficult to guess given the highly uncertain region.
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