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Israel Watches Syria, Hopefully, but Warily (NY) TIMES) By ETHAN BRONNER JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/22/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/world/middleeast/israel-both-hopeful-and-fearful-about-unrest-in-syria.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM — As Israelis watch the bloody confrontation between the Syrian people and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, they are torn by two sentiments: The downfall of Mr. Assad would deal a major blow to Iran and so would be welcome. But without a central authority, Syria could descend into being a land of chaos and terrorist bases on Israel’s northeast border.

Nearly a year into the Syrian uprising, the predominant view in Israel today is the former, that Mr. Assad must go, not only because he has killed thousands of civilians, but because he is a linchpin in the anti-Israel Iranian power network that includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Iran is investing very heavily in trying to save the Assad regime,” Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence minister, said at a briefing on Monday. “If the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.”

Efraim Halevy, who has served as both national security adviser and chief of the Mossad intelligence agency, made a similar point in a recent opinion article, saying that close international attention to Syria could obviate any need for a much riskier military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“Ensuring that Iran is evicted from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies,” he wrote in The New York Times. “This would be a safer and more rewarding option than the military one.”

Israeli government and intelligence analysts say they believe the most likely outcome of the current struggle in Syria is chaos. They base that on observing four parameters: the loyalty of Mr. Assad’s security forces, the economic situation, the participation in protests in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the possibility of international intervention.

Their conclusions are that a vast majority of the Syrian security forces remain loyal to Mr. Assad, and that will not change soon; that Iranian economic aid to Syria is generous and vital and keeps the system going; that the participation within Damascus and Aleppo in antigovernment activity remains low; and that the chance of American or European military intervention in Syria is near zero.

“I see no appetite for any foreign power to come in and put boots on the ground, as happened in Afghanistan and Libya, and I see a divided opposition,” one government analyst said. “The American plate is totally full, and the same is true of the Europeans.”

As a result, Israeli officials and intelligence analysts say they also worry about an increased presence by Al Qaeda in Syria and the possibility that Syria’s large storehouse of arms could end up in the hands of Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups.

At the annual Herzliya conference on Israeli security held several weeks ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke of this concern.

“We are following in particular the possible transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah, which break the delicate balance in Lebanon,” he said.

He was referring to long-range ballistic weapons able to reach anywhere in Israel, advanced antiaircraft systems, which threatened Israel’s action over Lebanese airspace, and unconventional weapons, especially chemical, according to Prime Source, a risk consultancy firm in Israel.

If such a transfer of arms happened, Israel would have to decide whether to strike a convoy and risk provoking the Assad government into a direct confrontation with Israel, potentially shifting attention away from its internal woes, experts said.

Prime Source concluded that Israel would be likely to strike only if the weapons changed the strategic picture because they were, for example, chemical arms. If the weapons were interchangeable with those already in Hezbollah’s hands, Israel would most likely not attack, it said.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and annexed it in 1981 in an act never accepted internationally. While Syria has not given up its claim to the area, it has kept the border trouble-free for nearly four decades. Still, Israel worries that Mr. Assad might lose control, permitting infiltrations, that the Golan Heights could become to the north what the Egyptian Sinai has become to the south: a staging ground for anti-Israel action.

This led an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say that it was lucky Israel had never made a peace deal with Syria that involved a return of the Golan Heights, as the world has long urged, since it has served as a buffer to the violence in the past year.

Military planners are also concerned that Mr. Assad might preemptively attack Israel to produce a response and cause Arab nations to back off pressuring the Syrian government, though there has been no evidence such a move was being contemplated.

One issue that has created debate in Israel is how public a stand its officials should take against Mr. Assad. Mr. Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have publicly called for his fall and condemned the civilian massacres, but Mr. Netanyahu has said less. His aides say he believes condemnation from Israel would allow Mr. Assad to accuse his opponents of being Zionist conspirators.

Among politicians on the left, there is more support for speaking out. Isaac Herzog, a member of Parliament with the Labor Party, said he had been in touch with Syrian opposition leaders in France and the United States and believes that such discreet contact will prove useful and that Israel needs to be on record against the Assad government.

“Most Israelis see Syria as a binary choice — Assad or nothing,” he said in an interview. “But there is a full revolution under way. I don’t think Israel should give the opposition a bear hug, but it should be open to important changes there. As one opposition leader told me: ‘We were brought up to believe that all evil comes from Israel. Now we see otherwise.’ ”

Mr. Herzog said he hoped Israeli Arabs could serve as a bridge with the new Syrian leaders. But Hussein Sweiti, a journalist with the Israeli Arab newspaper Al Sinara, said that was unlikely.

“It is very difficult for the Arab community in Israel to stand against Assad, since his was the only regime that supported the Palestinian issue and stood against Israel,” Mr. Sweiti, who has interviewed Syrian opponents for his newspaper, said by telephone. “Our community is in a difficult situation. We cannot be in the same line as Netanyahu and Obama against Assad. And no matter who rules in Syria, they will want the Golan back.” (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 02/22/12)


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