Whom Does Israel Favor in Syria’s Civil War? Humanitarian and Strategic Factors Clash

Twenty-eight months after the civil war in Syria began, Israel still doesn’t know who it wants to win. In any event, senior officials say they don’t believe they can do much to influence the outcome. 

CIA map of Syria

It’s Israeli intelligence that is tasked with carefully watching every development in Syria – with a definite focus on any attempt to move missiles, high-tech systems, and chemical weapons to terrorists including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. 

At least three times this year, when Aman — Israel’s military intelligence agency — picked up signs that significant types and quantities of weapons were about to be transferred by Syria’s regime to Hezbollah, Israel’s air force has struck targets inside Syria.

These were dramatic decisions, of course, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top national security advisors.  Israeli government spokespeople — while refusing to confirm publicly that their country had attacked Syrian targets — hastened to re-state the official policy that has dominated since the civil war began in January 2011: that Israel has no reason to choose sides.

Bashar al-Assad

Israel doesn’t call for the downfall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, although he and his predecessor and father Hafez al-Assad have helped terrorists, have been implacable enemies of Israel, and formed a firm alliance with Iran.

But does Israel like any of the rebel groups? Certainly the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups are not Israeli favorites. The more moderate rebels, including those who wear suits and ties and attend meetings in Western Europe with American envoys, also seem to hold little allure for the Israelis — although some of them, if they were to take over and try to build a democratic, free Syria, could conceivably live in peace and quiet alongside Israel.

The traditional Israeli view of divisions within the Arab world is that it’s good for Israel if “our enemies are busy killing each other.”

A source close to the leadership of the Mossad said, this month, that strategically Israel would still see things that way. “The best situation is for things to continue the way they are now,” this Israeli said. Yet within minutes the source added: “It’s true, however, that as human beings it’s very difficult for us Israelis — to know that people, including children, are being killed every day just a few kilometers away in Syria.”

At the start of the civil war, Israeli officials generally preferred that Assad be overthrown. But lately, seeing the rise of radical Islamist elements among the rebel fighters, some Israelis have said that things would be “not all that bad if Assad continues as president, assuming he is weakened.”

All in all, the source said, “it still would be better for Israel if Assad falls — because of his alliance with Iran and with Hezbollah.” Israel wants Iran and its proxies to lose.

May 24, 2013

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