The less Israel says about Syria, the better...

Israel would have too much to lose if ill-considered comments were to tilt Syria’s volatile situation in the wrong direction.

Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Syrian armed forces’ brutal attempt to crush the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime – which has reportedly claimed over 6,000 lives – has evoked widespread but silent sympathy in Israel.
However, there has been no public discussion of emergency medical aid or any other form of humanitarian assistance, and rightly so.
Any step that might imply support for either side in the yearlong conflict could be misconstrued as evidence of active involvement.
If Israel were to help the Free Syrian Army or its civilian supporters in the hope that they might opt for peace if they were to overthrow the Damascus regime, Syrian propagandists could charge that the Israelis were behind the uprising.
On the other hand, if Israel were to back Assad because he has abided by the cease-fire agreement instituted under the aegis of the UN after the Six Day War 44 years ago, his political longevity might be rendered that much shorter.
All that the Israelis can do at this stage is to keep abreast of developments across their northeastern border. This indeed is being done day in and day out in the local press and on TV and radio.
The biggest danger is that Assad could find a pretext for a military assault against Israel, in a desperate attempt to shift his rebellious public’s attention away from its criticism of his leadership to the historical enmity against the Jewish state.
If Assad were overthrown or fled Syria with his immediate family there are several political scenarios that could come into play.
First, this could be followed by a nationwide purge of Assad’s supporters, especially those who belong to his minority Alawite Islamic sect. That prospect stiffens the resistance to the political opposition. The pro-Assad establishment and the component remnants of the once-pervasive Ba’ath party also have a vested interest in preserving the regime.
Iran is another factor in Assad’s favor. The Islamic Republic does want to lose its closest Middle Eastern ally. Assad’s downfall might have dangerous repercussions inside Iran and therefore could undermine the existence of the Teheran regime.
Russia’s extensive military support of Syria and its political influence over its leadership also generate backing for Assad in the international arena. His removal and a potential Syrian alliance with France and the US would deprive Moscow of its last stronghold in the Arab world.
Assad’s fall also would be a major setback to such militant Islamic organizations as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas and other extremist Palestinian groups. This is because Syria has been a major conduit for Iran’s arms shipments to its Lebanese allies. Such a change would end the use of Damascus as the the headquarters of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of surface-to-surface missiles that were airlifted to Syria and transferred to southern Lebanon for deployment just across Israel’s northern border, would lose this major supply conduit.
In the meantime, there has been serious concern that Hezbollah agents would seize much of Syria’s arsenal in the event that Assad’s regime were to collapse. Hezbollah could go on to provoke a new military showdown with Israel, if only to rally Israel’s foes in Syria to its side.
Another danger inherent in the Syrian crisis is that it might lead to the advent of a hardline Islamic regime in Damascus. This could be prompted by two factors: resentment by Syria’s largest Muslim sect, the Sunnis, caused by more than four decades of submission to the Alawite minority, or the pro- Islamic upsurge that emerged from the so-called Arab Spring. This certainly would be a negative development from Israel’s standpoint.
In the event that the current showdown leads to the emergence of a relatively moderate, reformist regime in Damascus, one of the immediate results presumably would be a diplomatic effort to recover most if not all of the strategic Golan Heights from Israel. If such an effort were to fail, Israel not only would have to cope with another prolonged period of enmity and the consequent danger of another war, but would also lose a unique opportunity for regional normalization and stability.
All of these considerations explain why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refrained from public comment about the violence raging in Syria and why he has been able to convince the members of his cabinet and other coalition allies to keep quiet about the Syrian crisis.
Israel would have too much to lose if ill-considered comments were to tilt Syria’s volatile situation in the wrong direction in terms of this country’s security interests.
Therefore, the wisest course is just to continue reporting the tragic toll in dead and wounded, and the failure of the international community to intervene in a concerted and honest effort to stop the bloodshed. That is as far as Israel should go for the time being.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.