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Why Israel Wants Syria's Assad to Survive

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After Israel's air attacks against Syrian government military targets last weekend, you might be forgiven for thinking that Israel is doing what it can to help the anti-Assad rebels bring down a hated dictator.

You would be wrong. Bizarre as it may seem, if Israel could choose - which, probably to its dismay, it can't - it would much rather Bashar al-Assad somehow survived the current bloodbath. Fierce enemy though he is, Israel's leaders feel they know him, they understand him, and in an odd sort of way, they can do business with him.

Back in the days when Israel occupied great swathes of southern Lebanon, it was a standing joke in Jerusalem that although you could always negotiate to your heart's content with Lebanese political leaders, you could never do a deal. With Syria, on the other hand, the opposite was the case: it was all but impossible to negotiate, but somehow you could do a deal - and it would stick. In the 45 years since Israel seized and occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, the border between the two countries has been the most peaceful of all Israel's frontiers.

Israel would much rather deal with neighbours it knows, however unfriendly they are, than have to get used to living next door to new neighbours, who may well turn out to be even more unfriendly. Whatever the people of Syria might want, Israelis would be much happier with a brutal, secular dictator than a brutal, Islamist one.

They have already had to adjust to the new neighbours in Egypt, after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but there it seems that the people who really matter in Cairo as far as Israel is concerned - the military intelligence officers who help police the border and keep a close eye on what's going on in Gaza - are largely unchanged. It's as if the house next door has been bought by a new owner, but the tenants remain the same.

So if Israel doesn't want to see a change of regime in Damascus, why did it attack those military facilities? The answer is quite simple: it can live with Assad possessing chemical weapons and powerful Russian-made missiles, because it's confident he won't use them. Not so, in the case of the Lebanese group Hizbollah, which has a long record of attacking Israeli targets and which claims, with some justification, to have forced Israel to abandon its military presence in southern Lebanon. And if Israel thinks Assad is transferring some of his weaponry to Hizbollah, perhaps as a way of cementing their loyalty to his cause, well, that, for Israel, is a red line which must not be crossed.

All the signs are that President Assad understands this perfectly well. He and the Israelis have more in common than they might like to acknowledge - both are masters at the art of political power plays, and both know very well how to calibrate action and reaction. Assad can tell Hizbollah he tried to get the weapons to them - Israel tells Assad "We know what you're up to, and you know we know - and you also know that we won't let you get away with it."

Meanwhile, thousands more Syrians die. They are victims in what started out as a genuine popular uprising against a brutal dictatorship, but which has now become a regional war in which powerful outside interests - Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US, the Gulf states - are jostling for influence in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. To these outside powers, ending the conflict takes second place to winning it.

And this is where it gets even messier. I have pointed out before that even if Assad is eventually toppled, that may well not mean an end to the violence. The reason is that each of the anti-Assad actors has a different idea about what winning will mean: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, are backing entirely different anti-Assad factions, and there are growing signs of an ever more powerful jihadi element among the anti-Assad fighters who owe their loyalty first and foremost to an ideology rather than to a State sponsor.

It is, undeniably, a grim picture. If there is a chink of light on the horizon, it's the agreement between Moscow and Washington to put their heads together and try, once again, to come up with a joint position. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm marginally happier to see them trying than if they were simply wringing their hands in despair. Syria's agony will end eventually -- all agonies do - the only question is how much longer it must continue.