Israel in bind over policy towards Assad regime

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 7, 2011

Five months into the nascent Syrian revolution and Israel has yet to come up with a new policy towards its northern neighbour. Few public figures have spoken openly onthe subject but different views are being circulated.

On Tuesday, the commander of the IDF's Military Intelligence Branch, Major General Aviv Kohavi, said at a session of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that "you can't belittle the reform package that Assad has put forward". Despite this, he said that the reforms have yet to reduce the disturbances in Syria.

This week, tens of thousands joined anti-government protests in Hama and Allepo, with security forces opening fire on protesters. Maj Gen Kohavi said that the Assad regime would remain stable as long as the major protests remained outside Damascus, that the opposition still did not have a unified leadership and that desertion in the Syrian army remained rare.

According to French newspaper Le Figaro, Maj Gen Kohavi visited Washington for talks with US intelligence officials and expressed the concern that if Assad falls, Syrian weapons of mass destruction would find their way to Hizbollah and Hamas. According to the reports, Israel asked its allies to tone down their criticism of Assad.

Many senior Israeli officers and intelligence officials believe that, despite its alliance with Iran and Hizbollah, Syria can act as a stabilising factor in the region and President Assad can still be persuaded to leave the "radical axis" in exchange for a closer relationship with the West. They are also concerned that chaos in Syria will only give Iran more opportunities to expand its influence.

There are other views, though, and at least one senior general has said that "we have to get used to the idea that Assad is finished". Defence Minister Ehud Barak predicted last month that "Assad has lost his legitimacy and even if he stays in power for another year, he will be extremely weakened."

Last updated: 1:09pm, July 7 2011