Analysis: Israel frets on sideline as fall of Assad delayed (REUTERS) By Douglas Hamilton JERSALEM, ISRAEL 05/11/12 12:02pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Keen for a little bit of certainty in a turbulent Arab
world, Israeli leaders persuaded themselves last year that Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad - the devil they knew next door - was
finished, and something possibly better might be on the way.
But it was not to be. With the Syrian uprising now into its 14th
month and Assad still firmly in power, Israel has few options other
than to sit the crisis out, unable to influence the outcome of an
upheaval that is sure to affect it.
Israeli officials and analysts believe Assad will hang on for a
while, battling a popular revolt that Israel, Arab and Western powers
worry could yet be hijacked by Islamist radicals, after four decades
of calm along Israel´s border with Syria.
"A nuanced evaluation of the situation in Syria suggests that while
Assad has lost his legitimacy amongst the masses, he still maintains
the vital support of much of the army," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud
Barak said in Jerusalem last week.
"So the tragic massacre of innocents continues while the future of
Syria is shrouded in uncertainty," he told foreign
correspondents. "Whatever follows Assad´s bloodstained regime will be
greeted with Israel´s extended hand of peace ... Our other hand will
remain firmly grasped to our weapon."
As with the revolt that toppled their longtime Egyptian ally Hosni
Mubarak 15 months ago, Israeli leaders had tried to keep their lips
buttoned about Syria at first and let the storm unfold, hoping for
Then as the death toll quickly mounted in Assad´s ruthless crackdown
on the popular challenge to his rule, top officials including Barak
and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Assad regime was
clearly on its way out.
But that was last year. Assad is still in power.
In the long term, Israel would like nothing better than to see the
collapse of the Shi´ite Muslim-dominated Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis, a
hostile northern arch in which Assad´s government headed by his
Alawite sect forms the keystone.
Syria´s fractious Sunni Muslim-led opposition says it would turn a
post-Assad Syria away from Israel´s main enemy, Iran, towards
moderate Sunni powers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
The prospect of peace with Syria is enticing for Israel. But Syria´s
opposition is deeply divided, and Israel has little if any leverage
to promote the emergence of a moderate government next door in
Damascus - three hours´ drive from Tel Aviv.
"Israel is entirely powerless to affect the outcome in Syria," says
Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the Global Research in International
Affairs centre in Herzliya. "Israel´s role in the current events in
Syria is that of spectator."
"What Israel of course can do and is doing is to strengthen its
defensive posture on its northern border in the event of any attempt
by elements in Syria to try to re-focus attention on Israel. For my
part, I consider this unlikely..." Spyer said.
Israeli and foreign analysts agree that the grand coalition forged by
Netanyahu this week could strengthen his hand in dealing with what
Western officials suspect are Iran´s nuclear arms development plans
and in reviving hopes of a Middle East peace with the Palestinians.
But Netanyahu´s now unassailable Knesset majority makes no obvious or
immediate difference in the case of Syria.
Two car bombers killed nearly 60 people on Thursday in the deadliest
strike in Damascus since the uprising began. The attack appeared to
drive a stake through the heart of a dying ceasefire declared by
international mediator Kofi Annan on April 12, which he acknowledges
has failed to halt the bloodshed.
"The hapless attempt to implement the Kofi Annan plan is ending in
absurdity and humiliation," said Spyer.
He believed Assad stood a good chance of surviving, "unless an
international coalition comes into being which supports the
opposition at least as firmly as the international coalition behind
Assad supports him".
Active support of the opposition would mean the creation of a buffer
zone in the north, and assistance to the armed element in the Syrian
uprising, this analyst said.
Technically, Israel remains at war with Syria and its involvement in
such a risky gamble seems highly improbable.
Despite Israel´s annexation of the Golan Heights after the 1973
Middle East conflict, the United Nations-patrolled disengagement line
with Syria has been Israel´s quietest border for 40 years - under the
late Hafez al-Assad and now his son.
Barak predicted one year ago that Assad would soon be toppled, saying
Israel should not be alarmed. The process taking place in the Middle
East holds great promise, he said last May.
Today Barak says Israel must be ready in case "as Syria descends into
chaos, advanced weapons, or part of their stock of chemical and
biological weapons could spill over into both terrorist and criminal
Syria is widely believed to possess chemical warheads which can be
fired with Soviet-era Scud missiles. Israel fears that Hezbollah, or
radical Islamists, or al Qaeda fighters, could grab some of them in
an uncontrolled meltdown of the regime.
"Assad is going to last," said Syria analyst Moshe Maoz of Hebrew
University. "The balance of power is in his favor. There have been no
The officer corps of the army are members of Assad´s minority Alawite
sect, who know they would be slaughtered if Sunni-led rebels took
control of Syria, and so will fight on for their lives, Maoz said.
Punitive embargoes could take years to bring down Assad, he said.
Sympathetic neighbors Iraq and Lebanon would ensure that Damascus
never faces "a fully-fledged siege" of sanctions.
In the meantime, Maoz said, Israel´s best long-term strategy would be
to close ranks with Sunni Arab leaders in the region, by moving
finally and decisively to settle the Middle East conflict, with a
peace treaty and a Palestinian state.
"This is the crux issue for everybody," the analyst said. Not all
Israelis agree there is real linkage between the occupation of the
West Bank and Arab or Iranian hostility.
But Israel is in "a stormy sea in which the waves of radicalism are
growing in strength", said Barak, and "any intimation of democracy,
any hint of peace should be grabbed with both hands."
A senior official said Israel had no solution for Syria up its
sleeve. It is anxious to see more assertive policies by Western and
Arab capitals, including imposition of humanitarian corridors to
areas of conflict from which the United Nations estimates one million
Syrians have been displaced.
Such corridors would need military protection, which Western powers
so far firmly rule out. Syria´s northern neighbor Turkey could force
a rethink, however, if it were to declare to its NATO allies that its
own security was threatened.
Still, it would be mistaken to corner Assad, the Israeli official
said. It would be wiser to seek a way to convince his ally Russia
that its investment in Syria would not be lost if Assad could be
convinced to step aside, as Yemen´s Ali Abdullah Saleh did late last
year under Saudi and American pressure.
Russian cooperation, said Spyer, is crucial if the Western-Arab
coalition backing Annan´s plan decides Assad is not complying and
goes back to the Security Council seeking "further measures" to
enforce a ceasefire and political settlement.
"It is Russian weaponry which is keeping Assad in place. Russia has
invested deeply in Syria, both in terms of arms exports and broader
infrastructural projects and the search for oil and gas. Of course,
the importance of the naval base at Tartous should also not be
underestimated," he said.
But Spyer thinks Moscow and other allies of Assad "apparently believe
that the regime stands a good chance of coming through this and now
has the upper hand. So why should they do their U.S. regional rivals
a favor and make themselves look weak by abandoning a client?"
(Editing by Mark Heinrich) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 05/11/12)
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