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The myth of Israeli backing for Assad

Jun 1, 2012 | Ahron Shapiro

The myth of Israeli backing for Assad
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A myth seems to have developed in some circles that Israel is either backing the Assad regime in Syria, or at the least, is somehow impeding international action against it, supposedly out of fear of what may follow.

Thus, in February, the editorial writers at the Sydney Morning Herald
had the audacity to lump together Jerusalem’s interests regarding Syria to those of Teheran.

“Israel shares with its arch-enemy Iran an unease at Assad’s looming fall, fearing it will leave Syria in the hands of radical Sunni Islamists.”

Such views have also been espoused by some in academia. In April, Professor Anthony Billingsley, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales called the US and Israel “ambivalent” over Syria out of a desire to maintain stability in the region.

This is also a view that has caught on with some commentators in the Arab media, such as Randa Haidar, an analyst for An-Nahar in Lebanon.

Israel’s chief concern is not the rise of Islamic forces in Syria. Nor is it the possible ramifications if the anti-Assad revolution turns into a bloody sectarian conflict. Israel fears that the fate of Syria after Assad will be like that of Libya after the toppling of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. This would mean the “dismantling” of the state, its governing institutions and its security forces. Syria would turn into a chaotic hotbed of armed militias. In turn, this would pose a serious threat to the calm and stability that has prevailed in the Golan Heights since the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) war. Israel also fears the possibility of the border area with Syria turning into something like that with Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

Such claims were never very well-founded, as the majority view in Israeli security circles and public debate over the past year has been that, however bad what comes after may be, it cannot be worse than the Assad regime.

However, it is true that Israel had been taciturn in the earlier stages of Syria’s unrest lest it be accused of taking sides for its own benefit.
That policy changed in recent months, and Israel has emerged as an outspoken critic of President Bashar Assad’s crackdown – on humanitarian grounds – but surprisingly few commentators seem to have noticed.

In perhaps the clearest example yet that, far from inhibiting international intervention in Syria, Israel is actually urging a more robust approach, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv earlier this week that expelling Syrian diplomats was insufficient, and urged that stronger international action to be taken to protect the people of Syria from their government.

“These events in Syria compel the world to take action, not just talk, but action. These are crimes against humanity and the international community must not stand on the sidelines.”

(Strangely, while the New York Times initially covered this story in an article filed by its Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren under the headline “Israeli Defense Minister Calls for More Action Against Assad”, the story was quickly deleted from the Times website. While still keeping the focus on Barak’s speech, the story was re-written to reflect only the Defence Minister’s remarks regarding a potential future unilateral disengagement with the Palestinians should the peace process fail. This new story, which ran with the headline “Israeli Official Weighs Imposed Borders for Palestinians”, omitted all reference to Syria. However, the original URL reflecting the older headline remained.)

Far from being an aberration from Israeli policy, Barak’s remarks were very much in line with other comments by top ministers in the Netanyahu government over the past several months.

For example, in March, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote an Op-Ed calling for regime change in Syria as a moral imperative that is in the best interests of the Syrian people, but he also argued that Assad’s departure would also be in the best interests of Israelis and Lebanese.

A dramatic change in Syria’s regime is not only a moral imperative, but also an Israeli interest, since a new regime will most probably break the radical axis between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, in which Syria serves as the connecting link.
Such a development, in turn, holds promise of opening the path towards genuine democratization in both Syria and Lebanon.

To be sure, not all Israeli strategists and analysts are on the same page regarding Syria, and not all would agree with Lieberman’s view that a Sunni Muslim-led government – the most likely replacement for Assad’s Alawite regime – would respect Ceasefire and Disengagement agreements dating back to the 1970s and maintain the stability on Israel’s Golan border, as Assad largely has.

Also, it’s important to remember that Lieberman’s statements do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone in the Netanyahu government.
Yet, he is Israel’s Foreign Minister and his words carry considerable clout in terms of explaining official Israeli policy to the world.

Thus, when Lieberman extends an offer of humanitarian aid to Syria, as he did again this week,

it both amounts to a commitment by the Israeli government to provide the aid if requested, as well as sending an important message that Israel is prepared to stand up for human rights, even if it involves the citizens of a adversarial nation.

Meanwhile, regional analysts have been struggling to reconcile Israel’s stronger public stance against Assad with their previous assumptions about where Israel’s interests lay – often contradicting themselves and each other in the process.

Back in February, an AFP article claimed that Israel’s apparent reticence to take a strong public stand on Syria up to that point was meant to protect Assad.

Israel’s leaders, wary of what might follow an eventual fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s, have been muted in their criticism of his bloody crackdown on opponents, but that might change.

Yet in the Saudi Arabia’s Arab Times earlier this month, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid took exactly the opposite view, saying that Israel’s statements against Assad have historically only served to galvanize support for the Syrian leader – and, he adds, Israel knows it.

The Arab public usually stands against any team that is supported by the Israelis. In the past they had stood with Saddam, Iran and Hezbollah despite the crimes they had committed against their own people because they stood against Israel.
In the name of enmity toward Israel they gave champion titles and support to criminal regimes such as Iran, Saddam, two Assads and Qaddafi.

The truth is that some of the pundits paradoxically portraying both any response or no response by Israel to the Syrian unrest as an effort to help Assad appear to have a deeper agenda at play here – namely, to make sure that whoever comes out ahead when the dust settles in Syria, Israel loses.

Ahron Shapiro

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