For all his faults, Assad is the devil we know

Analysis: When Israel looks at Syria it also sees the possible development of a new enemy, far more radical and extreme.

Assad 311 reuters (photo credit: reuters)
Assad 311 reuters
(photo credit: reuters)
Since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, one of the strongest arguments some Israelis make against withdrawing from the Golan Heights and making peace with Syria is basically, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Of all of Israel’s borders including, the so-called peaceful ones with Jordan and Egypt, the border with Syria has always been the quietest. Yes, Israel fought a major war there in 1973, but since then, the border has been peaceful, with only a rare terror or criminal infiltration.
As Israel watches the ongoing demonstrations in Syria against President Bashar Assad, its greatest concern for the moment is the uncertainty that change in Syria would bring to the region. Israel has gotten used to Assad and he is almost predictable.
A new regime, led by a new actor, would likely be unpredictable and when considering the large arsenal of long-range Scud missiles Syria has stockpiled over the years and the accompanying chemical warheads, Israel needs to be considered.
In recent weeks, since the ongoing upheaval began in the Middle East, starting with Tunisia and Egypt and carrying on to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and now Syria, Israel has found itself in a new reality in which uncertainty prevails. Who will take over in Egypt as the new president and what will happen to the peace treaty? What will happen in Bahrain, and will Iran continue to solidify its grip over the Gulf states? With regards to Syria, the Israeli defense establishment cannot say that the writing was not on the wall.
It is no secret that Syria is in an economic crisis, lacking basic resources such as water, oil and produce. Assad has for years rejected opportunities to do business with the West – particularly Europe – and with runaway inflation and high unemployment he is now paying the price.
But when Israel looks at Syria it also sees the possible development of a new enemy, far more radical and extreme than the Assad they are familiar with. While not as strong and large as the Egyptian military, the Syrian military has obtained some advanced capabilities which, if the country falls apart, could fall into terrorist hands or be used by the country against Israel.
Just in recent years, Syria announced a decision to rebuild its aging air force and to procure new Russian MiG fighter jets. It has some of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems and also has a significant number, perhaps hundreds, of Scud missiles.
In the meantime, Israeli intelligence services are cautious in trying to predict how the riots in Syria will end and whether Assad will be prepared to cede power as easily as Hosni Mubarak did in Egypt.