As world scraps over which Syrian army to back, it’s lose-lose for Israel

By John R Bradley, May 30, 2013
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Forces loyal to Assad clash with rebels (Photo: AP)

Forces loyal to Assad clash with rebels (Photo: AP)

The decision by EU foreign ministers not to renew an arms embargo on the “moderate” Syrian opposition was predictably celebrated by Foreign Minister William Hague this week as “the outcome that the United Kingdom wanted”.

In reality, it was a pyrrhic victory. All member states subsequently announced they would not be sending anything until August, when peace talks brokered by the US and Russia are due to take place.

The Syrian regime has, in principle, agreed to attend, so all depends on the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) — the “moderates” Mr Hague wants to arm — getting its act together. As the EU lifted its embargo, bad news broke from Turkey: the SNC thwarted an attempt to create a new representative body after the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the group, refused to offer any Syrian liberals a leadership role.

This week, Russia pledged to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria in order to dissuade “some hotheads” from intervening. The previous week, it had sent Syria an advanced Yakhont anti-ship missile system — providing Damascus with the ability to fight off a naval embargo or to attempt to establish a no-fly zone.

As President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces continued to notch up impressive military victories on the ground, the message from Moscow to the West was clear: it is either a peace deal or World War Three.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that the country’s intelligence agency believes the Assad regime is “more stable than it has been in a long time and is capable of undertaking successful operations against rebel units at will” — a stark reappraisal of its earlier prediction of the regime’s imminent demise.

Small wonder a string of Israeli officials were suddenly being quoted in the Western media with their own reassessments. A weakened Mr Assad, ruling over a barely functioning state, would be preferable, they were arguing, to outright chaos, regional war or an Islamic theocracy hell-bent on Israel’s destruction.

The irony is that Syria itself did not pose any direct threat to Israel in the 40 years of the Assads’ dictatorial rule. Assad, an ally of Iran and Hizbollah, was an enemy who kept the peace.

As Israel is well aware, if Assad is overthrown, another can of worms opens up.

Tens of thousands of foreign jihadis, including many from Western countries, are already fighting in Syria, armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The “moderates” whom Mr Hague wants to supply with weapons, as the SNC again showed this week, simply do not exist.

All of which leaves the backers of this uprising in a potentially no-win situation. They either cave into Russian demands for a political solution through peace talks, which could leave Mr Assad in power with an emboldened Hizbollah and Iran by his side. Alternatively, their deliveries of fresh arms could enable the jihadis to crush Assad, paving the way for a fundamentalist Islamic state to be established.

Two outcomes that leave Israel with even bigger nightmares than before.

John R Bradley is the author of ‘After the Arab Spring’ (2012)

Last updated: 4:45pm, May 30 2013