May 20, 2024
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Israeli Thinking on the Future of the Assad Regime

Early on, Israel calculated, correctly, that its ability to affect the outcome of Syria’s civil war was limited. It has no influence on Syria’s domestic politics and if it were to extend any support to the opposition, the regime would seize the opportunity to embarrass them by pointing to any Israeli link or support.

At the same time, Israel made it clear that it had its own red lines vis-a-vis Syria. It announced that it would interrupt the transfer of sophisticated, game-changing weapon systems into the hands of terrorist groups, be they Hizbullah or the jihadi groups, as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were clearly upping the ante.

Israel may find itself in a cycle of violence in which it acts again and again against arms transfers via Syria to Hizbullah, eventually triggering a response. It was in this context that an Israeli official stated last week to the New York Times that should Assad retaliate, Israel will topple his regime, meaning that the destruction of Assad’s air force and armor by Israel would lead to an opposition victory.

There is a debate within the Israeli defense establishment as to the desirable outcome of the Syrian civil war. Some argue that, given the strength of the jihadi and Islamist elements among the militias fighting against the regime, a jihadi or Islamist takeover or a state of anarchy with jihadi elements free to launch terrorist activities is the most severe threat to Israel’s security. Others argue that the continuation of Assad’s regime in the service of Iran and in close partnership with Hezbollah presents a graver threat to Israel’s national security.

This latter school of thought is the more convincing. Bashar al-Assad demonstrated his ability to take radical dangerous actions when he built a nuclear reactor in league with North Korea. He demonstrated his willingness to brutalize his own population and use missiles and chemical weapons against it. He is now purely a tool in the service of Iran.

The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria under the Yitzhak Rabin government.

By Itamar Rabinovich (Institute for National Security Studies-Tel Aviv University)

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