Barak - AP - March 24, 2011
Defense Minister Ehud Barak Photo by AP
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Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime could come crashing down within a few weeks, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday at the World Policy Conference in Vienna.

"The falling down of this family is a blessing for the Middle East," Barak said during a question-and-answer session at the conference.

Since June, Barak has been predicting the downfall of the Assad regime "within a few months." Last week, during a visit to the Golan Heights, the defense minister updated his forecast to weeks, but his words didn't get much play in the media. His statements yesterday in Vienna, however, echoed louder, since they were made at an international conference.

Barak added that the fighting in Syria in recent days expressed "the ongoing downfall of the Assad family that would lead to the end of its reign."

"The Assad family and its faithful have killed more than 4,000 people in Syria to date," Barak said. "The Arab League decided to impose sanctions on Syria and King Abdullah of Jordan also voiced his view with regard to the government there. It is impossible to know who will rule Syria in the future, but in any event, it will be a blow to the axis between Iran and Hezbollah."

According to assessments by Israeli intelligence officials, the events of the past few weeks in Syria, where clashes between Assad's security forces and rebels have intensified, have indeed hastened the downfall of the current regime. Assad, the intelligence officials believe, is under increasing internal pressure that has been boosted by the severe condemnations coming from the international community against the Syrian leader's violent oppression of the uprising in his country.

Like Barak, the intelligence officials are unable to assess who will replace Assad after his downfall, with one of the scenarios under consideration being a civil war among the various sects in the country. Syria's geographic make-up could also change, the intelligence officials believe, noting that residents of parts of the country in which ethnic minorities are concentrated may seek to join neighboring states such as Turkey.

Back in Vienna, Barak also urged the world to apply "paralyzing" sanctions on Iran's energy sector and leadership, but didn't comment about whether Israel was ready to strike Tehran to cripple its alleged efforts to make nuclear arms.

Barak said he thought there was still "time for urgent, coherent, paralyzing sanctions" on Iran's leadership and its energy sector, effectively throttling exports and imports of oil and related products by Tehran.

Barak also described the Arab Spring that has swept regional despots from power in the Mideast and Africa as an "extremely moving" manifestation of mass striving for democracy. At the same time, Barak said the Mideast turmoil over the short term could result in more influence for Islamic radicals that would be "quite disturbing for the region."