There is a “real possibility” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “could survive Syria’s civil war and even prevail in it” against the rebels trying to topple him, Israeli International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz told a group of foreign journalists in Jerusalem on Monday.
Steinitz’s comments reflect the recent turnaround in Assad’s fortunes, with success on the battlefield thanks to immense military aid from Hizbullah, financial aid from Iran, and diplomatic cover by Russia.
The assessment also underscores the changing nature of the Syrian conflict and Israel’s views on it. Israeli security officials were initially convinced that Assad’s demise was only a matter of time. Last July, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Assad regime was “at the beginning of its end.”
Delivering a veiled threat on Monday, Steinitz said, “It is in Assad’s interest not to provoke Israel into a Syrian intervention.”
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is affiliated with Hizbullah, quoted a statement made by Assad to a visiting Jordanian politician in which the Syrian leader supposedly said he was “very serious” about his intention to “open a front against Israel on the Golan” should Israel intervene in the Syrian civil war or mount an attack against Syria’s missile systems.
“Establishing a front line against Israel in the Golan [Heights] is a very serious thing and it will entail more than random artillery fire,” Assad was quoted as saying Sunday, in an opinion piece written by a Jordanian politician.
“Syria will have a well-planned response, which will have long-lasting ramifications,” he reportedly said.
The op-ed further quoted Assad as saying that Syria’s retaliation will be “similar to that waged by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.”
The credibility of the Al-Akhbar report is questionable. In late May the newspaper quoted the Syrian president as boasting that his country had already received the first shipment of Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles it was expecting. Assad’s office itself rolled back that report, saying he Syrian president never made that remark but spoke generally about existing contracts with the Russians being fulfilled.
The Al-Akhbar report was not verified by any Western source, and though Moscow said it would follow through on the arms sale, which was inked in 2010, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the system has yet to be delivered to Damascus. Moscow’s Interfax news agency reported last week that while Russia is training Syrian military officers on anti-aircraft systems, their training “does not include the advanced S-300 system at this time.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel would “retaliate against anyone who threatens to harm Israel or brings it harm.”
The warning followed a tense conflict June 6 on Israel’s border in which Assad’s forces recaptured the lone border crossing after it had briefly fallen into rebel hands. Heavy fighting saw Syrian tanks enter the demilitarized zone between the two countries and prompted Austria to withdraw its 300-soldier contingent from the UN force, shrinking it by one-third.
Israel threatened to strike the tanks, according to a leaked UN document, refraining only when Syria promised to fire solely on rebel troops.
“The crumbling of the UN force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security,” Netanyahu told his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Israel has assiduously sought to stay out of the Syrian morass, engaging only when its interests were directly threatened. Thrice Israel has attacked Syrian weapons convoys bound for Hizbullah – once in January and twice in May.
Before this week, however, Israel had not threatened to engage Syrian forces directly. Still, last week’s battle probably won’t change Israel’s basic approach to the two-year-old conflict next door. The Syrian border has been largely calm since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel won’t enter the war “as long as fire is not being directed at us.”
That attitude plays well with ordinary Israelis, who clearly don’t want their country dragged into a neighboring conflict. An Israel Democracy Institute poll released Sunday showed that 86 percent of Israeli respondents want to stay out of Syria.
“Israel has an interest that the two sides will keep fighting, and not go in and decide who’s better for Israel,” said Syria expert Ely Karmon of the Interdisciplinary Center. “We need to wait and see who will control Syria.”