Moshe Maoz, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, talks to Rosner’s Domain about Israeli policy on Syria.
What should Israel’s policy be regarding Syria at the present time?
Israel couldn’t do very much. Basically, Israel should not intervene militarily for the time being, and I think Israel should offer some humanitarian help to the refugees because Syria is a next-door neighbor and it’s good also for PR, but mostly for Israel’s image. Israel was helping Haiti and Indonesia, I don’t know how many countries, why not help Syria, the next-door neighbor? And again, the refugees Israel would help might one day become leaders - and it’s also good for PR, and I am referring to those refugees who are in Turkey, so it’s possible to do it.
Otherwise, 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. Israel has not done it, and sometimes I am surprised that Israel sends its messages all over the world, but not to neighbors who hopefully will one day be peaceful neighbors.
Given then that Israel has chosen a policy of non-intervention, could something change that?
Yes. If - and G-d forbid the regime collapses and the heavy weapons including missiles with chemical warheads, which Syria has are going to be transferred to Hezbollah - and Israel would know it as Israel’s intelligence is very good - Israel should intervene and destroy it. But as I said, only when there is a total collapse of the regime. As long as the regime is in power, Israel should not do it because it can backfire. Israel would intervene militarily without provocation and there is no threat to Israel now, except as I said if these heavy weapons are going to be transferred to Hezbollah.
Is it better for Israel for the Assad regime to stay in place?
Some people say it. You know the American saying, “it’s better to work with the devil you know”. We know him, and he’s pragmatic and we can do business with him, so I suppose some Israelis, even leaders, felt like this. I think what’s going on there is a massacre, so Israel cannot stay aloof and not express its sympathies with the killed. I mean, the world is doing nothing but Israel should at least say something about it, but not pray for the survival of Bashar because he is a killer, awful killer.
So you think Assad is doomed, he cannot survive?
No. I would expect him to fall, but my analysis is that he is not going to fall so soon. I don’t know when, but I’ve been saying it time and again that the balance of power even now is still in his favor, unfortunately. He has the support of the military echelons, most of them are Alawite, but also Sunni and Christian [Syrians] support him, the middle classes, the new middle classes, also mostly Sunni, they support him because of interests, and many others who enjoy the reforms of the Baath party. Again, it’s a brutal regime, but it’s also good for the people and they support him. And 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.
On the other hand, the opposition is very weak and divided. Say for example you have a mass defection of soldiers, most of them are Sunni - a defection with their tanks and artillery to the rebels, this can change the balance of power. But for the time being the Syrian free army is weak and divided, and there is no outside intervention as was the case with Libya. I want to remind you that in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was in a worse situation after ‘91. Kurdistan - also Iraq - was a no-fly zone, also the south was a no-fly zone and [Hussein] was in the middle and he survived; until 2002 when the Americans invaded, he was still there. And Bashar is in a better situation, he is also supported by Iran - a very powerful support, military and economic - also by military and diplomatic support of Russia, [and] Chinese diplomatic support. He is not in an ideal situation, but he can survive for quite a while. I don’t know for how long, it’s not a matter of weeks; it’s months, maybe a year or more. Again, if Turkey decides to intervene on behalf of NATO or something else, this can change the situation.
If and when Assad does fall, what do you think Israel’s position be?
Again, if weapons are going to be transferred to Hezbollah, Israel should bomb the convoys and destroy the weapons, otherwise Israel has to wait and see what’s going on. We don’t know what’s going to happen, because there is such confusion; many Israeli leaders are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. I’m not so sure about this, because Syria is not Egypt, and Syria is more secular than Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood exists there, no doubt, and they are organized and they have motives, but I’m not sure whether they can fetch a majority.
But also again the vision here in Israel, for many Israelis, is all Muslims are killers and anti-Semites – no! There are Muslims who are pragmatic and if they are taking part in the next regime, they are looking for interests. Israel’s interest in Egypt is, are they most of all going to fight Israel? No! They have an interest to get American help. They need to feed in Egypt 85 million, in Syria 25 million. Intelligence must warn you can’t just sell slogans to the population, you have to coexist.
A new regime could be not friendly but pragmatic. I would assume that the most important, the most powerful military power that will emerge out of the ashes could define the future of Syria, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. That scenario would be a Sunni military force aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not going to be very good for Israel. Although, it could be pragmatic and it could calculate their own interests, but we don’t know. Israel has to be ready for everything, to be strong. Syria Is not a match for Israel mind you - Iran is a match - and there is a possibility, the Muslim Brotherhood state it, once they are in power that they are going to disconnect past relations with Iran and with Hezbollah, who were supporting Assad, and this is going to be a very good gain for Israel.
So there are all kinds of scenarios, we don’t know exactly what. Israel has to, as I said, to wait and see, also at least announce support morally with the rebels, those who are going to have a free Syria. Of course, all of us want a liberal, democratic , pluralistic Syria, unfortunately, I am not sure whether it’s going to happen.