Israeli intelligence says that if President Bashar Assad falls, the growing number of jihadists in Syria will take control and attack Israel. Europeans worry that their citizens currently fighting alongside Islamists will later carry out attacks at home.
The West and Israel have been reluctant to intervene with enough force to tip the balance of the fighting in Syria, but the continued influx of Sunni jihadists to the region and their increasing attacks in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq has some thinking Assad’s regime is the better of two evils.
The number of jihadists in Syria has grown from 2,000 to more than 30,000 in two years, and if Assad falls, they “are going to move and deflect their effort and attack Israel,” a senior intelligence official told the AP on Sunday.
As the talks between the Syrian regime and part of the opposition continue in Geneva, it has become abundantly clear that Assad has no intention of stepping down, while the opposition has no desire for an agreement that keeps him in power.
Some analysts believe that global powers have acquiesced to Assad’s remaining in power due to growing worries of jihadist gains in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where foreign fighters have been streaming in to support the jihad.
Another sign of this shift were reports that European intelligence agencies have been secretly meeting with Assad to share information on Europeans operating with Islamist groups in Syria.
Europe is worried about its citizens fighting in Syria, and that they could return to their home countries to carry out attacks.
According to Western and Middle Eastern officials and diplomats quoted by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, the discussions with the Syrian regime are focused on jihadist activities.
However, opposition elements are concerned that the West is coming to accept the idea of Assad staying in power.
“We worry that these preliminary discussions could lead to broader cooperation,” an opposition member in Istanbul told the newspaper.
Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post there is no doubt that jihadist gains in the region led to a change in perspective.
“The West and Israel are not in a hurry to get rid of Assad,” he said.
Referring to recent reports about Western intelligence cooperation with Assad’s regime, Zisser said this is part of it.
Asked if jihadist attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon are to Israel’s advantage, he responded that these groups are problematic because they are against both Israel and the Shi’ite organization.
Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, told the Post, “I think it is clear that the US is resigned to Assad staying. The chemical deal, actually a very good one in its own right, along with the Geneva talks, are a recognition that Assad is staying and can continue killing his people with wild abandon.”
The problem, he says, is that both Israel and the international community face two terrible outcomes. One could lead to jihadists ultimately turning their attention against Israel, and the other option is that Syria becomes “a virtual Iranian/ Hezbollah client state.”
“If the regime stays in power, it will largely be because of Iran and Hezbollah and it will be beholden to them, not just in partnership as in the past,” said Freilich.
Asked if Israel prefers the current regime stay in power, Freilich responded, “I think some in Israel are coming to prefer that Assad remain, the assumption being that even an Iran dominated by Syria is deterrable, whereas it will be far harder to deter the jihadis.”
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post that the situation is more complicated than what the unnamed Israeli official presented.
“This figure seems to lump together al-Qaida affiliates – the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) together with some Salafist groups. But there are substantial differences between al-Qaida affiliates and the Salafists, including their regional and global aspirations,” he said.
Tabler added, “It also seems to overlook that Assad has come back via the direct involvement of Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Shi’ite militias already on the ground that openly call for Israel’s destruction.”
Moreover, the Syria/Shi’ite alliance “cannot even retake all of Syrian territory,” he said, concluding that this is “not the address I imagine Israel or the US is looking for.”