Analysis: The Syrian deal - more bad than good for Israel

If Assad is left standing, Iran retains a vital strategic ally.

Assad and Khamenei 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Assad and Khamenei 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The emerging Russian-brokered deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria to forestall any US attack is – from Israel’s point of view – a very mixed blessing.
The good news is that if Syrian President Bashar Assad honors the deal – a huge “if,” considering that Assad is a butcher who has killed tens of thousands of his own people to stay in power – then a very deadly weapon will be removed from Israel’s doorstep. Israel will no longer have to worry about chemical warfare with its bitter enemy to the north.
Moreover, if indeed the stockpiles are all destroyed or moved, then Jerusalem would also be relieved of the major headache of worrying that these weapons could be transferred to or “fall” into the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations.
While the assessments in Jerusalem have long been that Assad would be reluctant to use his chemical weapons against Israel because of fear of retribution, the concern is that the radical suicide terrorists might not harbor a similar fear or even care about the payback.
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Chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands, therefore, is a net gain – that is the good news.
The bad news, however, is that Assad is left standing.
The message of his surviving this whole incident as president of Syria is that – yes – in the 21st century you can wipe out entire neighborhoods and cities, use missiles, planes, artillery fire and even sarin gas to indiscriminately kill your own people, and still be allowed to rule.
That Assad is left standing, and may even end up remaining in power, is bad for Israel because it sends the following reassuring message to those in the neighborhood – particularly Iran – either perpetrating heinous acts or contemplating them: No worries, this world won’t interfere, you can get away with it.
Even if Assad has to forfeit his WMD stockpile, he will still literally get away with murder because – to borrow loosely from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the USA” – “He’s still there, they’re all gone.”
Ever since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war more than two years ago, many asked who Israel wanted to prevail. Did Jerusalem prefer Assad, the predictable “devil it knew,” or the motley crew of rebels fighting him who could conceivably bring to power Muslim Brotherhood elements or – worse – al- Qaida?
More than 100,000 dead Syrians later, including a few thousand killed by deadly gas, there is increasingly a feeling among some key policy makers in Jerusalem that it simply cannot get any worse than Assad.
Assad is one of the most brutal and dangerous leaders on the planet; one without restraints; one who is now turning his country from an Iranian proxy into an Iranian client state. If he survives, it will be because of Russian political cover and Iranian and Hezbollah physical and material assistance.
True, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida would definitely – if they ever gained control of Syria – cause Israel fits.
True, they could turn the Golan border, so quiet under Assad and his father since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, into a living hell.
But even though the Sunni terror and jihadist groups like Hamas and al-Qaida threaten Israel and cause enormous problems, the main peril to Israel right now is not the Sunni terrorists but rather the possibility of an Iranian-led Shi’ite axis – one that soon could be armed with nuclear weapons – stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon.
Let no one be distracted by the current events in Syria and Egypt: Iran remains Israel’s principal threat today, a threat that becomes existential if it gains nuclear arms. As such, anything that benefits Iran is bad for Jerusalem. Assad remaining in power benefits Iran, it is another link in the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis of evil.
As horrible as it might be, even a Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaida controlled Syria might be the lesser of two evils for Israel since at least the Iranian propelled Shi’ite arc would be broken, and Iran would be weakened. A toppled Assad is a weakened Hezbollah and a weakened Iran, and that is a net gain.
The bad news in the Russian-brokered deal currently under discussion is that Assad remains at the helm. This is bad not only because a man who murdered so many will remain standing to kill another day, but also because Iran will retain a vital strategic ally. And, of course, Iran is the much more significant game right now for Israel than even Syria.