Jerusalem — Shedding their caution about being seen as interfering in the Syrian crisis, Israelis both inside and outside the government are now openly advocating armed Western intervention to topple the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Critics of the new posture say it plays into the hands of the Assad regime, which has been eager to paint the fighting as entirely the result of a Western and Zionist conspiracy against Syria for being a steadfast Arab nationalist state. But Israel’s strong interest in dealing a blow to Iran, Syria’s main ally and backer, is drawing an increasing number of security figures to back an activist policy against the regime.
Initially, the shift was a quiet one, discussed mainly within Israel’s tightly knit circle of active and retired security and intelligence strategists. The government’s official stance remained one of reticence and neutrality. That is still basically the stance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declined to answer recently when asked if he favored the West actively arming the rebels.
“I’m not sure that as prime minister of the state of Israel that it would help me to respond to that because I am not sure it would help the very people you want to help,’’ he told the Jerusalem Post on September 16.
But intervention against Assad is now publicly proclaimed as official policy by the Foreign Ministry.
“Yes, just as there was intervention in Libya, there should also be intervention in Syria, if need be by military action,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Forward, recalling the 2011 NATO bombing campaign that paved the way for the fall of Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi. “We don’t specify what form this action should take, but from a moral standpoint, the Syrian civilians need protection.”
The stated Israeli rationale for Western intervention to topple Assad is to put a halt to spiraling fatalities, now estimated at more than 20,000. And Palmor stuck to that as his explanation for Israel’s shift.
“As the carnage became more horrible day by day, there was a need to take a moral stand.” he said.
But within the influential elite of retired senior security officials who have been pushing for this change, Israel’s strategic interest in Assad’s ouster is also acknowledged. In a New York Times opinion piece published February 7, Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad wrote bluntly, “As [Assad’s] government falters, Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles heel. Iran has poured a vast array of resources into the country…. The current standoff presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace to international security and well-being.”
At the time of that Times article, Halevy called only for intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade Russia and China, Syria’s main backers, to cut off their support. He declined to be interviewed by the Forward on his views regarding Western military intervention now, with the failure of diplomacy on this point with Russia and China.
Amos Yadlin, exeutive director of Israel’s leading security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in Tel Aviv, and former head of military intelligence, backed Western military intervention in a September 6 opinion article in the British newspaper The Independent.
In the article, Yadlin sought to pre-empt opponents of military involvement, writing that Syria “need not become ‘another Iraq’” and reassuring readers that the West would not become mired in another Muslim country as it had in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The recommended model, built on the lessons of Iraq, is a Western aerial campaign that paves the way for regime change, as it did in Kosovo and Libya,” he wrote, adding that the West has a “moral obligation” to go ahead despite Moscow’s objections.
“No Russian, Chinese or Arab opposition justifies passivity while the Assad regime continues to slaughter the Syrian people,” Yadlin wrote.