Israeli leaders’ silence on Assad’s crackdown reflects fears of uncertain future


Israel’s leaders, wary of what might follow an eventual fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s, have been muted in their criticism of his bloody crackdown on opponents, but that might change.

Despite the dispute between the two neighbors over the Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the 1967 Six Day war and later annexed by the Jewish state, the Israeli-Syrian border has been largely quiet since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

And though Israel and Syria have never officially made peace, many Israeli officials consider the authoritarian Assad, like his father before him, a known factor and probably the best guarantor of the status quo on the frontier.

While the violence in Syria has brought widespread international condemnation, Israeli leaders have mostly avoided attacking Assad by name.

“We saw the Syrian army massacre its own people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday. “We have seen bloody events in our region. Various leaders have no moral compunctions about killing their neighbors and their own people alike.”

Such comments do not go far enough, according to Isaac Herzog, a member of the opposition Labour party group in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

“It is time for the government, faced with the atrocities committed in Syria, to drop its reserve and clearly condemn the atrocities of the Syrian government,” he told AFP.

More than 6,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the revolt in Syria in mid-March 2011, according to Syrian activists.

But officials fear that if Assad were to fall from power, his regime’s weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups, including Israel’s arch-foe, the Damascus- and Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militants.

Israel and the United States suspect Damascus of having an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

And in 2007, the Israeli air force destroyed a nuclear facility built by Syria, allegedly with the help of North Korea.

Eyal Zisser, a history professor specializing in Syria and Lebanon at Tel Aviv University, said Israel’s relative quiet on the situation next door was also intended to protect Syrian activists.

“Israeli leaders prefer to keep silent for fear of weakening the opposition, so that the Assad regime does not characterize the opposition as Zionist allies,” he told AFP.

But Zisser said he sees both Israel’s leaders and its public opinion gradually coming off the fence and increasingly likely to be convinced of the need for regime change in Syria because of the blow it could strike to Iran.

Tehran, a sworn enemy of the Jewish state, has maintained close ties to Assad throughout the uprising, even allegedly providing him with weapons that have been used against protesters.

If Assad is overthrown, the next regime is likely to seek to punish Iran for its stance, undermining Tehran’s influence in the area around Israel and striking a severe blow to the Iranian regime at a time when it is already facing tough international sanctions over its nuclear activities.

“At the start (of protest in Syria), the Israelis were saying ‘We prefer the devil we know, Bashar al-Assad”, Zisser said.

“But they are more and more likely to think that in the long term it is in their interest that Assad leave because he is a close ally of Hezbollah and Iran.”

That view is shared by Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who believes that Israel has reached the conclusion that “even if chaos in Syria can be dangerous, the direct and indirect damage that Assad causes, as an ally and principal agent of Iran are more important.”