The wave of protests over the past few days in Syria is bringing the Arab revolution closer to Israel's borders. The city of Dara'a in Syria's Bashan region, where protesters yesterday destroyed a statue of Hafez Assad and burned the Ba'ath Party building, is near the three-way border between Israel, Jordan and Syria. If the Syrian government fails to repress the uprising and it spreads from the south to other cities, this means deep strategic change.
If Bashar Assad's regime falls, Israel will face uncertainty. Who will control the reserves of Scud missiles with chemical warheads? Who will command the army on the Golan front? Will Assad's successors be more open to the West and Israel, or will they try to spark a conflict to gain domestic and regional legitimacy, as the current regime did?
And if the uprising fails and Assad remains in power, will he try to renew the peace process and get the Golan back from Israel in an attempt to ensure his survival? Will there be a point to Israel negotiating with a hated ruler who could fall? Each of these possibilities has its risks and opportunities for Israel.
Israel has had a complex relationship with Hafez Assad and his son Bashar, who between them have ruled Syria for the past 41 years. The Alawite dictatorship in Damascus has been a bitter adversary, raising the banner of "resistance." It has sought strategic parity with Israel while serving as a pillar for regional order and a partner to the peace process.
The Syrians strictly maintain the separation of forces on the Golan, while deeper in Syria they are building a strong army with hundreds of Scuds, arming Hezbollah with thousands of rockets, and even trying to develop a nuclear capability. After their efforts to recapture the Golan were thwarted in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, they preferred to manage the conflict with Israel indirectly through their ally Hezbollah and the Palestinian rejectionist organizations, whose commanders they have sheltered.
The alliance Hafez Assad forged with Iran, which was first directed at their common enemy, Iraq, was developed by Bashar Assad into a strategic axis that peaked with Iran's control over Lebanon and Gaza and the removal of Turkey from the pro-Israel axis. Bashar Assad emerged as a successful diplomat who survived American opposition to his rule during George W. Bush's presidency, and over the past two years he has worked hard to improve Syria's image in the West as a secular, welcoming country.
To Israel, the great advantage of Assad's regime is its lack of daring and its tendency to avoid risk and direct conflict. Assad's responses have been predictable, allowing Israel freedom of action. The height of this was the September 2007 bombing of the nuclear reactor that had been built secretly in northeast Syria. Assad did not respond, and even renewed peace talks a few months later with the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert. The talks stalled, as had all previous attempts.
When the uprising broke out in Tunisia and proceeded to Egypt, Assad tried to project calm and claim that the same thing would not happen in his country. "We are not Egyptians and not Tunisians," he told The Wall Street Journal in late January. But he was wrong, and now he has to fight to save his regime from the angry masses.
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