What should Israel do about Syria? The short answer is, well, nothing. Or not much. Or not much at this time. That is, if you care to follow the advice of Israeli experts — and we all should keep in mind that the experts’ stock has been in steep decline recently because of the so-called Arab Spring, a development that no expert can truthfully claim to have predicted.
We presented three experts this week with similar questions: Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies; Itamar Rabinovich, professor and former president of Tel Aviv University, former ambassador to Washington, and Israel’s former chief negotiator with Syria; professor Eyal Zisser of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
[Full transcript, Shmuel Rosner with Moshe Maoz: ‘Assad will fall, but not so quickly’]
In addressing Israel’s relationship to the upheaval in Syria, three main questions need to be asked: Does Israel want Bashar al-Assad’s regime to fall? Should Israel do anything about it? And what should Israel do if and when the regime collapses?
The three scholars we contacted were in agreement on all three questions: 1.) It doesn’t matter what Israel wants. 2.) No, Israel should not intervene. 3.) Wait and see. As Rabinovich framed it: “Speculation upon speculation, hypothesis upon hypothesis, it’s premature to do that.” Israel has to wait to see what happens and not prepare “seven responses for seven potential scenarios.”
Is it better for Israel to have Assad winning the confrontation with the opposition groups?
“Some people think it is,” Maoz said. “We know him, and he’s pragmatic, and we can do business with him, so I suppose some Israelis — even leaders — feel like this.” Zisser, however, believes that “Israel came to the conclusion that it is in the interests of Israel that he should fall.”
So, what should Israel do now?
Israel should “condemn the massacres conducted by the regime,” Zisser said, a point that Maoz also emphasizes. But it can’t do much more. “Israel couldn’t do very much,” Maoz said. “Basically, Israel should not intervene militarily for the time being. I do think Israel should offer some humanitarian help to the refugees, because Syria is a next-door neighbor and it’s good also for PR. Israel has helped Haiti and Indonesia and I don’t know how many other countries, so why not help Syria, the next-door neighbor? Israel cannot do very much, except begin to tell Syrians that whatever happens, we sympathize with the freedom fighters, and, whatever happens, we would like to discuss peaceful relations with the next government, with the next regime in Syria.”
Rabinovich thinks the prospect for Israel “of Syrian refugees” is not “a major issue.”
“It will be natural for Syrian refugees to flow to Arab countries, like Lebanon, Jordan, even Iraq, also Turkey,” he said. Thus, “there is nothing much we can do about the domestic situation in Syria. The last thing the Syrian opposition needs is to be embraced or supported by us — it would undermine their legitimacy. And so, at this point, we should be passive, but attentive.”
Clearly, Israelis are mostly worried about proliferation of Syrian missiles and chemical weapons, should the regime fall.
“We have to be attentive,” Rabinovich said, “because we do not want the Syrians to provide chemical weapons or any other deadly systems to Hezbollah or any other terrorist groups; we do not want al-Qaeda to establish itself in Syria.”
Maoz believes that such developments would be the only pretext to necessitate Israeli intervention. “If heavy weapons, including missiles with chemical warheads, which Syria has, are going to be transferred to Hezbollah, Israel should intervene and destroy [them].”
Maoz and Rabinovich both believe Assad will not survive (Zisser is more cautious), but even if this is true, all three also believe that this eventuality could well take longer than previously assumed. “It may take quite some time,” Rabinovich said.
“The balance of power even now is still in his favor, unfortunately,” Maoz said. “He has the support of the military echelons, most of them are Alawite, but Sunni and Christian Syrians also support him. Many people don’t want chaos, and Christians, for example, are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge and then they will be in trouble.”
As to what might happen after Assad falls, it is way too early to judge, the experts agree. “It’s one thing if he’s replaced by an internal coup, the other if there’s a popular rebellion, a third if the country descends into chaos,” Rabinovich said.
Maoz reminded that “a new regime might not be friendly, but it can still be pragmatic.” He believes that “the most powerful military power that will emerge out of the ashes could define the future of Syria. That could be a Sunni military force aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
From the Israeli standpoint, one positive outcome if Assad doesn’t survive could be the weakening of Iran’s influence in the region. “Syria is not a match for Israel — Iran is a match — and there is a possibility that a Muslim Brotherhood state will disconnect past relations with Iran and with Hezbollah, who were supporting Assad, and this is going to be a very good gain for Israel,” Maoz said.