Taking Sides in Syria War Is Tough Choice for Israel

Decision on Stance Highlighted in Case of Arab Israeli Who Fought Against al-Assad

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By Reuters

Published May 03, 2013.
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MIXED MESSAGES

But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presiding over a new, right-leaning coalition and the Israeli military stretched by keeping vigil over several fronts - including Islamist-ruled Egypt - the message has been far from uniform.

Netanyahu may have contributed to this by framing Iran and its nuclear programme as Israel’s overriding regional concern, bolstering the case for removing Tehran’s ally Assad.

When an Israeli intelligence analyst said last week that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, both the Netanyahu government and its foreign allies were blindsided, according to officials.

Washington confirmed the Israeli assessment, thus posing a problem for U.S. President Barack Obama, who had said use of chemical arms would be a “red line”.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister urged U.S. action in Syria - a call slapped down by more senior figures.

Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said it was not making any policy recommendations to Obama on Syria.

“We think this issue is very complex,” he told Reuters.

Several officials said Israel would be unlikely to attack Syria unilaterally unless it had evidence that chemical weapons had been handed over to Hezbollah.

Lacking enough of the specialised ground troops that would be needed for a search-and-destroy sweep of chemical weapons, Israel would probably have to rely on aerial bombing.

The Netanyhau government might even acquiesce if the rebels acquire the chemical weapons, on the assumption that the insurgents were mainstream Syrians keen to rebuild their country and loath to invite catastrophic war with Israel.

“If the jihadis get the chemical weapons, that’s very bad, but there’s still the hope that these people lack the hard-core military wherewithal, and required technical support in Syria, that would be required to use them,” one Israeli official said.

Indeed, Israeli planners are debating to what extent the radical Sunni Islamists fighting Assad could eventually constitute a direct threat to Israel.

The chief military spokesman, Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, sounded the alarm last month by saying the “Global Jihad” - meaning al Qaeda and its affiliates - wielded the most clout on the Syrian-held side of the Golan Heights.

Other Israeli authorities are more optimistic. The Mossad intelligence agency estimates that Syria’s entrenched secularism will dilute enmity to Israel, according to one official.

“The Islamists there aren’t all Salafists, and the Salafists aren’t all al Qaeda, by any means,” the official said.

“We may not make peace, but I think we might find some kind of dialogue, if only for the sake of mutual deterrence.”

Israel has given no indication that it already has contacts with Syria’s opposition. But it has coordinated closely on security with Jordan, a supporter of some rebel factions.

Back in Judge Yaakov’s courtroom, the fate of Massarwa, who faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted, rests on whether the state can prove there is danger to Israel from the Free Syrian Army unit he stayed with for a week in March.

Massarwa’s lawyer, Helal Jaber, hopes the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” will win clemency for his client, who went to Syria via Turkey in search of a missing brother who had separately joined the rebels.

“The greatest democracies in the world, including the United States, are supporting the opposition to Assad,” Jaber said. “So how can Israel fault someone for doing the same?”


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