Israel’s Intelligence and Military Strategists Show Little Consensus on Syria

Defense Establishment Not as United as it Seems

No Clear Stance: Opinions range from support for Assad’s survival to unqualified backing for his ouster, even if that means grappling with an Al-Qaeda takeover.
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No Clear Stance: Opinions range from support for Assad’s survival to unqualified backing for his ouster, even if that means grappling with an Al-Qaeda takeover.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published September 15, 2013, issue of September 20, 2013.
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Zaki Shalom

Contrary to Halevy’s downbeat view, Zaki Shalom sees hope in Assad. The Syrian leader, he believes, could be redeemed in the eyes of the West and become a benign neighbor for Israel.

Shalom has published on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East. A senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and a professor at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheba, Shalom thinks that if in the long term the state is subdivided, the Syrian Arab Republic could even become Israel’s friend.

“The present situation is not bothering us,” he said. Syria is getting weaker, and as an enemy gets weaker it is better for Israel. Syria’s army is engaged in a war and has no energy to get engaged in warfare with Israel.”

But the unseating of Assad “might bring chaos, and we prefer a central regime than chaos.” Shalom is particularly concerned about jihadist elements in the Syrian opposition.

Assad is “the person we know, and we know how to deal with him….Our history with Assad is quiet, and while I wouldn’t say peaceful, [conflict with Assad] is not on the agenda.”

Citing the tacit agreement for quiet along the Israel-Syria cease-fire line, Shalom said, “We don’t like him — he’s a dictator, he’s brutal, but you can make a ‘deal’ with him.”

In his analysis, “the problem is Iran not Syria.” And as such, if Iran’s influence is neutralized, then Syria stops being a headache for Israel.

Shalom believes that as far as Assad is concerned, “if there is a strike on Iran and the Iranian regime becomes unstable, he will make his calculations and say ‘better an alliance with the West.’” After all, “he’s a pragmatic leader — he’s not crazy.”

The long-term solution in Syria “will have to bring about [its] division into two or three states.” Eventually, he expects an Alawite-Shi’ite state, led by Assad, along with a Sunni state and a Kurdish state. He foresees the break-up as coming with Assad’s assent — albeit possibly as a result of very heavy pressure from the West.

“I think those states will need flourishing economies, and I’m not ruling out scenarios where they would seek some type of relationship with Israel — if not three of them, one or two.”

Mordechai Kedar

To Mordechai Kedar, who directed a Syria desk at the Israel Defense Forces for much of his 25-year career in military intelligence, Shalom’s logic is deeply flawed. The fact that Israel is familiar with Assad “should actually work against him,” while the Syrian opposition, despite being an unknown quantity, is less troubling.

The jihadists in its ranks “are a tactical and maybe an operational threat to Israel but not a threat to the state.” Kedar elaborated that they “are terrorists, yet they are not posing any existential threat to Israel.”

As far as he is concerned, the big difference is that whatever the dangers of jihadists, they are not representatives of the Iranian regime. Kedar does not believe that Syria’s alliance with the power elites in Tehran will be broken while Assad remains in office. “His breath comes from their lung: money-wise and weapons-wise he is deep in their pockets.

“The end of the Assad regime is better for Israel than him staying in power, because [with Assad], Iran is on our border.”

What if the regime in Tehran collapsed? Even then, he considers opposition jihadists preferable to Assad, as any power they might attain would be relatively weak and disputed by various rival factions.

The possibility that interests Kedar more is that further weakening of the Syrian regime, or the regime’s final demise, could have a domino effect in Tehran. This is because there is division within Iran’s ruling class regarding how far it should commit itself to Assad.

“If disputes start to emerge inside [Iran’s] ruling elite, it is good for Israel and good for the rest of the world.”


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