(photo credit: MAJED JABER / REUTERS)
IN MID-MARCH, THE TURMOIL sweeping the Arab world touched on Israel’s northeastern border.
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The dusty Syrian town of Daraa, where the current wave of protests against the Assad regime began, lies on the frontier with Jordan, just 25 miles east of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Although sparked by local grievances, including a scarcity of water for agriculture, the demonstrations quickly took on regional overtones as they spread to other towns and cities with marching protesters chanting, “No Iran, no Hizballah.”
The cry was partly a call for a reordering of national priorities. But it also implied a demand for a major reorientation of Syrian foreign policy. And clearly the way the unrest affects Damascus’s relationship with the radical Iranian-led axis, which includes Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, will have significant ramifications for Israel and the region as a whole.
As the events in Syria unfolded, Israel adopted a wait-and-see attitude and a policy of strict non-intervention. With so much at stake, government ministers observed that although the situation was fraught with danger, it also contained the seeds of positive change.
The dangers to Israel are clear. The emergence of a more radical regime in Syria could mean a strengthening of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas axis. In a worst case scenario, Iran could have direct geographical access to Lebanon through a more Iran-friendly Syria. Syria’s huge stocks of missiles and chemical weapons could fall into less responsible hands. The unrest at Israel’s doorstep could spread to the Palestinian territories and to Jordan. President Bashar Assad, if he survives, or a more radical successor regime if he doesn’t, could heat up the conflict with Israel to build domestic legitimacy.
Against that, there is a huge opportunity for positive regional change if a chastened Assad, after riding out the storm, or a more moderate successor regime were to turn to the West with a program for democratic reform and a call for economic aid to make it work.
Either way, that would mean a severe weakening of the Iranian axis and an opening for peacemaking with Israel. It could also have a positive impact on Israeli- Palestinian relations and on Israel’s regional status.