Bashar al-Assad interview521.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Several prominent Israelis have expressed their preference for President Bashar
Assad’s victory in the civil war in Syria. This is a mistaken attitude for moral
and strategic reasons.
Firstly, siding with a dictator that butchers his
own people, and even uses chemical weapons in order to stay in power, is morally
disgusting. At the normative level, Assad’s brutal dictatorship is not an
acceptable preference for a democratic state like Israel, even if the
alternatives to Assad are not very enticing. (The Syrian opposition includes
radical Sunni elements – such as al-Qaida – that have not displayed great
sensitivity to human rights either.) In the real world there is sometimes a
tacit necessity to tolerate a dictatorship for a variety of reasons, but
explicit support for it is a moral embarrassment.
statements that favor a side in the domestic struggles within Arab entities are
always a mixed blessing.
Nobody in the Arab world wants to be “tainted”
by an association with the Jewish or Zionist state. While links with Israel
could be very useful, explicit closeness to Israel has an undesirable
delegitimizing effect. Therefore, even if Israel has its favorites, Israeli
leaders should keep their mouths shut.
Third, the idea that Israel can
help engineer a certain political outcome among its unruly neighbors displays
incredible intellectual and historical ignorance. Great Britain and France ruled
the Middle East for decades and were not very successful in changing the ways
the “natives” ran their affairs.
In 1982, Israel was tempted to create a
new political order in Lebanon and failed miserably. Additional grand failures
include the US’s 21st-century efforts to create an Iraq and an Afghanistan in
its image. Change in this part of the world can come only from within by local
leaders. Unfortunately, the Middle East has bred only despots of the worst kind,
such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Assads, hardly leadership material that
this region desperately needs to escape obscurantism, poverty, and oppression.
The notable exception is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose accomplishments are
currently being eroded by the AKP-led government in Turkey.
most important, support for Assad reflects flawed understanding of regional
strategic realities. Syria under the Assad family has been the most stable ally
of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East. Iran is the greatest
strategic challenge to Israel’s national security, particularly because of its
quest for nuclear weapons. The survival of the Assad regime is a paramount
Iranian interest, in order to consolidate the Shi’ite crescent from the Gulf to
the Mediterranean – which is precisely why Iran uses its influence in Iraq and
Lebanon to send Shi’ite fighters to prop up the Alawite regime in
Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy, and therefore weakening it should be
Israel’s first priority in its foreign policy. The fall of Assad would be a
great blow to Iran’s ambitions for Mideast dominance. It is in Israel’s
interests that Iranian influence in the region be rolled back.
moderation to the Assad family because it has kept the Golan Heights border
quiet is somewhat misleading.
During all those years, Syria did not
hesitate to bleed Israel via its proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah and radical
Palestinian groups. Moreover, the “moderate” Assad tried to develop a nuclear
option with the aid of North Korea and Iran. If Assad stays in power he may try
Moreover, open Israeli support for Assad puts Israel at
loggerheads with much of the Sunni Arab world. At this stage, such posturing is
not wise. Whatever the formal positions Sunni states display on Israel, they are
Israel’s allies in the attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Siding with
Assad undermines cooperation in this endeavor. A Saudi corridor for attacking
Iranian nuclear installations is not a far-fetched scenario if Israel plays it
smart in the Middle East.
FINALLY, THE understandable preference for
having strong states, rather than failed states, on Israel’s borders – because
such states are easier deterred – is not necessarily a good rule of
Instability in Syria, the probable outcome of the opposition’s
victory, seems more dangerous than an Assad regime that has internalized the
rules of the game. Yet, a stable Syria can become a rogue state like North
Korea. History tells us that states do not always behave rationally and in a
Moreover, the fundamental truth is that states have
greater capabilities than non-state organizations to inflict pain on their
Therefore, by definition, strong states are more dangerous
than failed states.
Only strong states can support a longrange missile
program or develop nuclear weapons. For example, a strong Salafist regime in
Egypt is potentially more dangerous than an Egypt that has problems enforcing
its sovereignty over all its territory. Chaos among Israel’s neighbors should
not be altogether feared, as it weakens them. The most significant result of the
Arab upheavals in recent years is the weakening of the Arab state, which has
increased the power differential between Israel and its neighbors.
Middle East must be approached with humility, particularly by small states such
as Israel. Jerusalem cannot choose its neighbors and their regimes; it can only
minimize their abilities to harm Israel. Therefore, Israel’s interests are very
clear: stay out of the domestic struggles in Syria, and destroy any enemy
military capabilities there that have significant potential for harming
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity
of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
The writer is a professor of political
studies at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.