Assad sits for interview 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is a mistake for Israelis to express support for Bashar Assad. Israel should
stay out of the Syrian conflict altogether while hoping for the fall of the
Assad regime. Ultimately, Israel would be better served by a failed state next
door than by a strong, Iranian-backed entity there.
Israelis have expressed their preference for an Assad victory in the Syrian
civil war. This is a mistaken attitude for both moral and strategic
First, 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 is a moral
Second, Israeli statements that favor any side in 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, public 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 given 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 21st-century efforts of the US 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 Saddam Hussein and the Assads;
hardly the leadership material that this region desperately needs to escape
obscurantism, poverty and oppression. The notable exception is Kemal Atatürk,
whose accomplishments are currently being eroded by the AKP-led government in
Fourth, and most importantly, 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 Syria.
Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy and therefore
weakening it should be Israel’s first foreign policy priority.
of Assad would be a great blow to Iran’s ambitions for Middle East dominance. It
is in Israel’s interest that Iranian influence in the region be rolled
Ascribing moderation to the Assad family because it has kept the
Golan Heights border quiet is somewhat misleading. During all those “quiet”
years, Syria did not hesitate to bleed Israel via its proxies, namely Hezbollah
in Lebanon 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 again.
An additional factor is that 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
farfetched scenario if Israel plays it smart in the Middle East.
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 thumb.
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 could become a
rogue state like North Korea. History tells us that states do not always behave
rationally and responsibly.
Moreover, the fundamental truth is that
states have greater capabilities than non-state organizations to inflict pain on
their neighbors. Therefore, by definition strong states are more dangerous than
failed states. Only strong states can support a long-range 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 ability 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 a significant potential to harm
Israelis.The author 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.
This article is based on one printed in
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 205.