Last week was the bloodiest in Syria since the uprising began, continuing through Monday. The arrival of Arab League observers, expected to appear in the war torn city of Homs Tuesday, did nothing to change the situation. Car bombs exploded outside government buildings, the regime’s security forces carried out a massacre, and clashes between defectors and Assad’s forces indicate the conflict is spiraling downwards. The outcome is of extreme concern to Israel, which sees an enemy in Assad but also an enemy in the Islamists among those protesting him. The Israeli leadership has taken a stand: It wants Assad to fall.
It has been repeatedly stated that Israel would prefer the secular dictatorship of Bashar Assad stay in power than collapse, potentially throwing the country into civil war and precipitating an Islamist takeover. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal to correct its coverage of Israel’s stance.
“Allied with Iran, Mr. Assad has helped supply 55,000 rockets to Hezbollah and 10,000 to Hamas, very likely established a clandestine nuclear arms program…[Assad] confirms Israel’s fears that the devil we know in Syria is worse than the devil we don’t,” Oren wrote. In April, President Peres said, “I believe finally that a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future.”
Barak said that the revolution’s success would be a major blow to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. It would also benefit Turkey, the primary backer of the Syrian opposition. Barak said this would benefit Israel because Turkey is competing with Iran. However, Turkey’s sharp turn against Israel under the leadership of Erdogan is undeniable and dangerous. Senior U.S. State Department official Frederic Hof stated that Assad is the “equivalent of dead man walking.”
Indeed, Assad is tied at the hip with Iran and Hezbollah and he has been a staunch supporter of Hamas and other terrorists. Iran and Hezbollah have dispatched operatives to take part in Assad’s crackdown, with soldiers reporting that Shiite extremists are executing Syrian soldiers who refuse to fire on their countrymen. Iran recently began a secret air lift to Syria, sending seven commercial airliners to Damascus each week loaded with weapons.
Assad’s relationship with Hamas, however, is breaking. Iran is threatening to stop training, funding and arming the terrorist group if it leaves Syria. Hamas has mostly brought its staff out of Damascus, leaving behind a minimal presence. It is moving to Gaza, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is on the side of the revolution, so Hamas is stuck in between a rock and a hard place and is preparing to align with its Sunni brethren.
Defense Minister Barak argues that Syria’s population cannot be compared with that of Egypt, describing it as more secular. Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon agrees with Barak, saying that Assad’s fall is only a matter of “time and bloodshed.” Yaalon says there are “moderate Sunni elements” in Syria that are not like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian opposition agrees and most of the activists arrested by the regime are secularists.
Experts disagree on the demographic makeup of Syria, but their assessments substantiate Barak’s and Yaalon’s analyses. Sami Moubayed writes that 15% are Kurds, 15% are Allawites and Shiites, 10% are Christians, 10% are Beduins and tribal members, 3% are Druze and another 2% are from other minorities. These minorities live in fear of Islamists, and make up 55% of the population. Moubayed believes that at least 25% of the Sunnis are secularist. Syrian opposition activists generally estimate the level of Islamist support to be around 20%. Dr. Barry Rubin puts Islamist support at around 15%.
The leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella of opposition groups, is a secularist named Burhan Ghalioun. He promises that the SNC will end its “strategic, military alliance” with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. He dismissed the possibility of an Islamist takeover, saying they don’t represent more than 10% of the population.
Not all Israeli officials agree. Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said, “Although the Islamist forces are not the majority in the opposition, they are better organized and politically competent.” He addressed Israel’s desire to break Syria away from Iran’s orbit by saying that an Islamist-controlled Syria would remain close to Iran.
The Free Syria Army that is battling Assad and the SNC are closely tied to Turkey and Qatar. SNC officials have met with Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a part of the coalition. The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Libya are meeting with the Free Syria Army and according to some reports, providing fighters.
Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy warns of the instability that could follow regime change. “If the result is that not only Assad is removed but the Syrian military structure disintegrates, then there’s no telling who will control what.”
This is a legitimate concern. The loss of up to 20,000 anti-aircraft missiles in Libya as well as other armaments is a serious worry for the West. In Syria, there are at least five chemical weapons sites. Assad is believed to have tons of mustard gas, sarin gas and VX, as well as Scud missiles and many conventional weapons that can fall into the hands of terrorists. The U.N. has discovered a nuclear site in Syria that appears to be for uranium enrichment.
Bashar Assad is a major enemy of Israel and the West as a whole, and it is tempting to embrace his removal. The opposition includes the secularists that we’d like to see come to power and the Islamists who we don’t want to come to power. The West should not embrace Assad, but it must be keenly aware of the dangers that lie ahead if he falls.
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