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Israel fears the alternative if Syria's Assad falls

Syria is one of Israel's strongest enemies, but it has been predictable and relatively stable.

March 30, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Jerusalem — As popular unrest threatens to topple another Arab neighbor, Israel finds itself again quietly rooting for the survival of an autocratic yet predictable regime, rather than face an untested new government in its place.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's race to tamp down public unrest is stirring anxiety in Israel that is even higher than its hand-wringing over Egypt's recent regime change. Unlike Israel and Egypt, Israel and Syria have no peace agreement, and Syria, with a large arsenal of sophisticated weapons, is one of Israel's strongest enemies.

Though Israel has frequently criticized Assad for cozying up to Iran, arming Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and sheltering leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, many in Israel think their country might be better off if Assad keeps the reins of power.

"You want to work with the devil you know," said Moshe Maoz, a former government advisor and Syria expert at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

Several Israeli government and military officials declined to speak in depth about Assad, fearing any comments could backfire given the strong anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world. That's what happened when some Israeli officials attempted to bolster Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he resigned Feb. 11.

"Officially it's better to avoid any reaction and watch the situation," said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry's policy director. He predicted Assad's regime would survive the unrest.

Privately, Israeli officials confirmed that although Assad is no friend, he's probably better than the immediate alternatives, which could include civil war, an Iraq-style insurgency or an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel is worried about what might happen to Syria's arsenal, including Scud missiles, thousands of rockets capable of reaching all of Israel, chemical warheads, advanced surface-to-air systems and an aging air force.

After spending billions of dollars in recent years to bolster its army in a bid to catch up to Israel's military capability, Syria was reportedly pursuing a nuclear program until Israel bombed its suspected reactor facility in 2007.

Despite Syria's ambitions, Assad has been a predictable foe and something of a paper tiger, analysts say. He did not retaliate for the 2007 airstrike and, like his predecessor and father, Hafez Assad, has been careful to avoid direct confrontation with Israel, preferring instead to arm anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Assad has even flirted with peace talks with Israel, though he insists that Israel return the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War.

"Despite problematic aspects, Bashar maintains a stability," said Eyal Zisser, head of Mideast studies at Tel Aviv University. "The border is quiet. You know where you stand with him. On the other hand, when you go toward the unknown, it is really unknown."

If Assad were to fall, many in Israel say, the best-case scenario would be a government of moderate Sunni Muslims. Syria's Sunni majority has long resented rule by Assad's Alawite-minority family, and some hope that a Sunni-led government would break Syria's ties with Iran.

"A Sunni regime would clearly distance itself from the Shiite Iran and Hezbollah," Zisser said. "Any other regime would be less committed to such an alliance."

In the short term, however, Israel's military is worried that Assad might attempt to divert attention from his domestic problems by triggering a clash with Israel, either directly or through Hezbollah or Hamas.

On Wednesday, Assad blamed Western powers with an "Israeli agenda" for fomenting Syrian unrest.

Some say Israel squandered a chance in recent years to reach a peace deal with Syria that might have provided a foundation for bilateral relations with a future government. A succession of recent Israeli prime ministers has been reluctant to reach such a deal, in part over the Israeli public's resistance to returning the Golan Heights.

Maoz said such a deal could have pulled Syria away from Iran's influence and improved relations with the Arab world, but now such talks are unlikely because of the unrest threatening Assad's rule.

"Israel missed an opportunity to make peace with Syria," he said.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

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