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Israel's Changing Stance on Syria

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Given the degree of hostility between Israel and Syria, it might seem odd that for much of the past year, Israel's leaders have been fairly quiet about the uprising taking place within its northern neighbour. Israel has deliberately kept a low profile, not least because it knows any intervention could be manipulated for propaganda purposes within the conflict. Behind the scenes, however, there has been an evolving discussion among Israeli policy-makers and strategists about how to respond - a discussion which is now entering a new phase.

The first phase was in the opening months of the uprising. As Israel, like everyone else, tried to figure out which way the conflict was evolving, a debate opened up within Israel's security establishment over whether it was better if Assad - the devil it knew - hung on, or was displaced. On the one hand Assad's regime is an obvious menace to Israeli security, providing support for Palestinian extremists, a vital ally for Iran in the Arab world, and a conduit for Iranian arms flowing to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. On the other hand, the Assad regime kept Syria's border with Israel quiet, and Assad's fall could lead to the the rise of an Islamist regime, or a chaotic situation which might destabilise Israel's northern border. This debate was always fairly academic in Israeli circles, since Israel had few policy levers to effect what was happening in Syria either way.

The second stage of the discussion began a few months into the uprising, when Israeli analysts, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, came to the conclusion that Assad's days were numbered. Then the focus shifted to anticipating the consequences of Assad's fall. Of particular concern was the possibility that chaos in Syria would lead to its huge arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles reaching Hezbollah or others that might use them to threaten Israel.

Now the discussion has moved to a third stage, marked by increasingly vocal calls by Israeli leaders for a more proactive international effort to get rid of Assad. A new policy paper published by BICOM, written by former IDF director of strategic planning Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog, explains the shift in Israel's tone.

As Herzog's paper shows, predictions of Assad's swift demise have proven premature. The outcome of the increasingly bloody civil conflict is now highly uncertain. This is both because the regime has proven its will to use brutality to stay in power, and because external powers with an interest in its survival - Iran, Hezbollah and Russia - have been actively helped it to survive. With the developing civil war having no end in sight, the question now is how to promote the best possible outcome.

According to Herzog, Israel and the West share a stake in seeing this conflict resolved quickly, on both humanitarian and strategic grounds. A protracted civil war, in which Assad could hang on for an extended period, is bad news. The longer the process of Assad's downfall, the more people will die, the more fractured Syria is likely to become, and the greater the strain on Syria's neighbours - particularly Jordan and Turkey who are taking in refugees. In the unlikely event that Assad wins, its allies in Tehran will be emboldened as a result. But if the Assad regime goes, a major blow will have been dealt to the radical anti-Western axis in the region.

As Herzog's paper argues, there is an asymmetry between the active support being provided to Assad by its international allies, and the more passive support for the opposition of Western powers who have called on Assad to go. Israel's role remains necessarily very limited, but the US and European powers share its interests. Though direct military intervention does not look on the cards, the West could do much more, along with regional states, to provide political and military support for elements of the opposition and further the isolation of the regime.

For these reasons, Israeli strategists and political leaders are increasingly calling for a more proactive Western approach to the conflict. It would indeed be in Britain's interests to consider what more they could be doing. A better armed and supported opposition, against a Syrian military with waning morale, could speed up the pace of defections, persuade Russia of the hopelessness of Assad's position, and hasten the end of this bloody conflict.