Syrian President Bashar Assad is fighting for the survival of his regime against a wave of protests that began in Daraa, and on the weekend reached the outskirts of Damascus and Latakia. On the one hand, Assad is using force against the protesters - dozens have been killed by security forces - but on the other hand, he is scattering promises of reforms that are supposed to calm people down and save his regime.
The uprising in Syria presents a challenge for Israel. For the first time since the revolutionary awakening began in the Arab world, the protests have reached a neighboring party to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has tense deterrent relations with Israel and a substantial military force. Both the current Syrian president and his father, Hafez Assad, sought a "strategic balance" with Israel during their rule. In the past 20 years they conducted sporadic peace talks with Israel, intended to restore the Golan Heights to Syria and to establish new security-related and civilian relations between the two countries.
The weakening of the regime in Damascus illustrates how an opportunity was squandered because of the failure of talks with Syria. Israel now has no direct channel of communication with that country, as it has with Egypt and Jordan. There is also no peace treaty which Israel can demand to have honored, as it did after the uprising in Cairo.
The crisis in Syria will have important implications for Israel's strategic situation. There will be risks, for example, if Syria's store of chemical weapons falls into dangerous hands, if the collapsing regime tries to survive by ratcheting up the conflict with Israel, or if Assad's successors exploit the conflict to gain domestic legitimacy. There also could be opportunities, however, if instead of Assad, a democratic regime arises that distances itself from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Israel needs to avoid any open or covert involvement in these events to the north, whether verbal or in terms of action. It must ensure observance of the separation of forces agreement that has kept things quiet along the border with the Golan Heights, and demand that any future Syrian leader maintain that agreement. Moreover, Israel should also declare that it will enter into negotiations with any Syrian government that achieves legitimacy and recognition.
Meanwhile, the Syrians must and should solve their problems themselves.
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