Middle East

Syria plunges into disarray while Israel stands to benefit

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” is a saying that perhaps best summarizes Israeli policy in terms of its relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime. The Israeli government isn’t fond of Assad’s strategic ties with Iran or his long-time support and armament of Hamas and Hezbollah – but for Israel, a “devil” who has kept the northeastern Israeli front calm for more than three decades is better than one who might open the door to new scenarios in the occupied Golan Heights.

Some members of the opposition Syrian National Council have gone even further, claiming that Israel and its allied lobby in the United States have piled the pressure on President Barack Obama during a re-election year to avoid making any serious moves to topple Assad.

Whether such claims are true, the outcome is the same. Washington has ruled out any military intervention by NATO, a position backed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, while the threat of a Russian-Chinese veto in the Security Council against any escalation remains fully intact.

Instead, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested a humanitarian “buffer zone” for refugees in Syria.

If this option is pursued, it would encourage further erosion of the Syrian Army, as defectors could use the area as a safe haven similar to Benghazi, which Libyan rebels used as a base to launch attacks against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

However, under the current circumstances, the Free Syrian Army can only hope to boost its military might with the help of supportive Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as a cooperative Turkey that allows arms shipments to the rebels through its border.

Yet with both sides of the conflict struggling to take ground but failing to break the standoff, Israel is set to benefit from a long confrontation between Assad’s forces and opposition groups.

As Assad’s military intensifies its crackdown on protesters and rebels alike, the situation in Syria is very likely to further deteriorate into civil war.

A civil war means two things: a fragmented state and a divided people. Simply put: a weaker Syria to the benefit of Israel.

And if one assumes that further defections from the military will eventually enable the Free Syrian Army to make progress against regime loyalists, Israel could be poised to benefit more from an unlikely but possible scenario: Assad and his supporters are forced to retreat to predominantly Alawite regions, in a communal fallback aimed at establishing an Alawite mini-state.

A Syria divided along sectarian lines could see its own tension spread to an already-fragile Lebanon.

While it all seems like a farfetched scenario, Israel could accomplish in a chaotic Syria what it failed to achieve during Lebanon’s bloody 15-year Civil War. Bordered by sectarian political entities, Israel’s raison d’etre as a Jewish state will only be enhanced as a result.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 19, 2012, on page 2.




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