'Israel wants to keep Assad in power'

BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 22 (UPI) -- Middle Eastern politics are notorious for their Byzantine twists and conspiracy theories and now Israeli leaders seem to be sending some strange and contradictory signals to Syria these days.

While some threaten to bring down the wrath of God on President Bashar Assad if he retaliates for a string of recent Israeli airstrikes targeting his missile depots, others are indicating they want him to stay on, suitably weakened of course, because an Islamist regime taking over in Damascus would be much too dangerous.


"Better the devil we know than demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there," the Times of London quoted a senior Israeli intelligence official as saying.

Although Israel has not formally acknowledged mounting the airstrikes, there's little doubt who in the Middle East could have carried them out.


The targets were all Russian surface-to-air or Iranian surface-to-surface missiles the Israelis say were to be handed over to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite movement whose forces are fighting alongside Assad's troops.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed Israel will not allow such weapons, which pose a grave threat to the Jewish state, to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group.

But the real point of his message, say seasoned observers of the Middle East's diplomatic doublespeak, is that Israel means no harm to befall Assad's beleaguered regime -- not right now.

Indeed, Abdul Qader Saleh, commander of the rebel al-Tawhid Brigade, said May 12 Assad's regime, founded in 1970 by his late strongman father Hafez Assad, had, in fact, been whipped and the Israeli raids were intended to keep the regime's advanced weapons out of rebel hands, not Hezbollah's.

"The Syrian opposition was on the verge of taking over Assad's weapons caches and that's why Israel attacked Syria," he said. "The assault was in support of Assad."

Israel, Saleh claimed, is cooperating with Iran and Hezbollah -- its two most dangerous enemies -- to prevent the fall of Assad, "who has defended Israel's border for more than 40 years."


Israel's northern border along the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau in southern Syria that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, has been its quietest frontier since the end of the 1973 war.

But that's not because Hafez Assad, one of the region's most cunning strategists, had thrown in the towel.

Rather than provoke Israel directly, it used Hezbollah to wage a guerrilla war against the Jewish state from neighboring Lebanon.

Efraim Halevy, a former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, gave some weight to the assertion Israel doesn't want to see Assad gone.

"Israel's most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed," he wrote in the May edition of Foreign Affairs.

"But it is no accident that those strikes were focused solely on the destruction of weapons depots, and that Israel has given no indication of wanting to intervene further."

Israel, Halevy wrote, "ultimately has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar Assad.

"Israel knows one thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border ... Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon's civil war, the border remained quiet."


But there would seem to be an even deeper thread of strategic self-interest running through Israeli thinking on this: Keeping Assad in power means Iran, which Netanyahu sees as Israel's greatest enemy, will be tied down keeping Tehran's sole Arab ally, and its conduit to the Levant, in power.

Thanassis Cambanis of the Century Foundation think tank observed the Iranian regime, struggling under international sanctions over its nuclear program, is having to provide growing military and financial aid to Assad.

"The conflict shows no sign of ending and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate," he wrote in the journal Foreign Policy.

"If this is Iran's Vietnam, we're only beginning year three."

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