Analysis: What does Israel want to see in Syria?

Prolonged instability in Syria only invites chaos, and that contains kernels of disaster.

Good Syria demonstration picture 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Good Syria demonstration picture 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What Israel wants to happen in Syria is a simple question with no straightforward answer.
On the one hand it is clear what Israel wants. Israel wants a Jeffersonian democracy installed that will have full control over its own territory, be moderate and pro-Western in orientation, and be willing to sit down and talk peace with Jerusalem. But no one has any illusion that is what will emerge.
So the question remains, what does Israel – in the realm of the possible – want? Does it want to see President Bashar Assad fall? Does it want to see the opposition forces take control? Does it want to see Western intervention?
For those questions, however, there are no clear answers.
While Israeli leaders on Sunday came out and loudly condemned the ongoing slaughter in Syria, almost none of them called for direct Western intervention. Israel is in no way clamoring for the world to intervene and send in troops.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reply to a question he was asked during an interview with the German Bild newspaper last week about whether the time is right for the West to intervene and stop the bloodshed was telling.
“That’s a decision for the leading powers who are now talking about it,” he said, avoiding a direct answer. “The less I say as prime minister of Israel, the better. The more I speak about it, I will be causing damage to the people we want to help.”
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The Washington Post’s
Jackson Diehl had a good take on the reason for this reticence to push for Western intervention in a piece he wrote Monday.
If the US gets involved in a military operation in Syria, Diehl wrote, “would it still be feasible to carry out an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? What if Israel were to launch one while a Syria operation was still ongoing?” The obvious answer, he continued, “is that the result could be an unmanageable mess – which is why, when I recently asked a senior Israeli official about a Western intervention in Syria, I got this answer: ‘We are concentrated on Iran. Anything that can create a distraction from Iran is not for the best.’”
Outside of predicting Assad’s inevitable collapse, and condemning the slaughter of innocents there, Israel has for the most part stayed quiet about what it hopes to see transpire inside its northeastern neighbor. And it has been quiet – wisely – for a number of reasons.
First because – as Netanyahu said – whatever Israel says can and will be used against it. If Jerusalem publicly backs one side in the conflict, that in itself will be used as an arrow in the quiver of those who oppose the side Israel supports.
Secondly, Israel is quiet because it has no influence.
Jerusalem is not exactly Moscow when it comes to Damascus, and its ability to impact the events there is nil. So if you are not going to make an impact, why sound off?
And thirdly, officials have stayed quiet because it is so difficult really to tell which side Israel should be rooting for.
One thing that can’t be discounted, however, is that Israel prefers the “devil it knows.”
Israel spills no tears over Assad. He indeed has been a devil for Israel, having armed Hezbollah and Hamas, tried to develop nuclear weapons and made common cause and given support and succor to Iran.
In fact Assad’s is the only Arab government that has been a staunch ally of Iran.
So there is no love in Jerusalem for the “devil we know.”
At the same time, there is no illusion about the Syrian opposition. Rather, there is deep skepticism and cynicism inside Jerusalem that Israel’s strategic situation would improve were the Syrian opposition to assume power – especially since there is concern about al-Qaida and Muslim Brotherhood elements inside that opposition.
Yet while Israel does not have a clear side in this fight, it is also not necessarily in a position of wishing a pox on both houses because of its overriding concern of instability and utter chaos.
The chaotic breakup of Syria would raise huge questions for Israel. Who will control the country’s arsenal of advanced and non-conventional systems? How to deal with a situation where a certain faction gets hold of missiles and fires them on Israel? What if the country breaks up into bits and the border with Golan falls into the hands of elements keen on provoking a fight with Israel?
While the complexity of the situation makes it difficult to say what Israel wants to see happen in Syria, it clearly would like whatever is going to happen, to happen already – because prolonged instability only invites chaos, and that contains kernels of disaster.