by Dan Margalit
In his book "From Beirut to Jerusalem," New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote about his chilling visit to then-President Hafez al-Assad's Syria in the 1980s. Friedman visited Hama, a city that had rebelled against the Assad regime. Hafez Assad had ordered the mass murder of his political rivals, with many being buried alive, in what Friedman then termed "Hama rules." Cruelty is apparently a gene that can be passed down from generation to generation. On Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, ordered an airstrike that killed dozens of innocent civilians waiting in line for bread. Incidents like this, albeit on a smaller scale, are happening in Syria every few days.
The natural and obvious assessment is that Bashar Assad will not remain in the presidential palace in Damascus for much longer. How long can he hold onto power with an army that controls only a quarter of Syria's territory? The outcome is inevitable. According to one report, the U.S. and Russia have reached an agreement that Assad will be exiled to a foreign country. Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa has called for negotiations because even Assad knows that his military cannot win the civil war.
But there will be a significant time period between the issuing of statements that Assad is finished and Assad actually leaving power. During this time, events may occur that are fateful to the future of Syria and the Middle East. Syria will not experience an "Arab Spring." Instead, it will go through a dark and stormy winter.
Western nations are now aiding the Syrian rebels more than in the past. The West is sending weapons and ammunition to the rebels, but it is not publicly admitting to these actions and it is not dispatching military forces to Syria. This is mainly to avoid a confrontation with Russia, which still has many existing interests tied to the Assad regime. Russia is preventing the Assad regime's downfall, even though the regime has continued to make unfounded claims and unfulfilled promises.
Israel has so far not intervened in the situation in Syria. Even Arab countries have not jumped in to save Syria's civilians from being massacred.
The fall of the Assad regime will be received in Israel with mixed feelings. On one hand, there is a great chance that Assad's downfall will cut off a vital link, for which there is no substitute, between the Iranian regime in Tehran and the Hezbollah organization in Beirut. A blow like this to Iran will significantly strengthen Israel's security.
On the other hand, two generations of leaders from the Assad family have maintained the cease-fire on the Golan Heights since June 1974. There is no guarantee that this quiet will hold after a regime change in Syria, especially if the central authority in Damascus is weak and the country is divided into feudal-like tribal districts.
Experts in Syrian affairs cannot give the Israeli government an authoritative answer on which is the lesser of two evils. Whoever takes over in Damascus and controls the Syrian military will receive a huge chemical weapons arsenal. Damned if you do and damned if you don't, the saying goes. As long as Assad ruled his country with an iron fist, it was safe to assume that he would not use his chemical weapons rashly. It is unknown whether his successor will act similarly. Either way, it is clear that Israel will have to flex its muscles more than it did in the past year, during which calls were heard to reduce the defense budget.
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