Does Israel Want Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad In Power?

Israel’s position on the war in Syria, now in its eighth year, has long been a matter of speculation among political analysts and residents of the region.

Some peddle the view that Israel prefers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power. Under his government, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan region remained quiet, and the rise of the Syrian opposition to power would have posited an unknown threat to Israel.

Others, however, argue that Assad’s close relationship with Iran, allowing the latter to intervene in the war and spread its influence close to the border with Israel, poses an even larger threat.

But as Russian-backed forces of President Assad close in on rebels in southern Syria and attempt to end the war, analysts say Israel is likely to be at ease with Assad remaining in power, despite repeated calls by Israeli politicians for the president’s ouster.

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“With the growing realisation that the Assad regime will remain in power, there is a tendency in Israel – and this was probably the result of recent Israeli-US-Russian consultation – to ensure Israel’s acceptance of the Assad regime,” Elie Podeh, a professor of the Middle East at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.

“The bottom line is that Israel wants to ensure the stability and quietness of the Israeli-Syrian border, and if the Assad regime will do its share – as in the past – then Israel will be satisfied,” added Podeh.

Since Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015, Israel, which maintains a good relationship with Moscow, has been allowed to freely carry out airstrikes against Iranian, Syrian and the Lebanese Hezbollah group positions deep inside Syria.

Pointing to Moscow’s role as a mediator between the many parties involved in the war, and its control of Syria’s airspace, political commentators say Russia’s intervention changed Israel’s position on Assad, albeit implicitly.

“Russia’s intervention in 2015 gave the Israeli government someone to talk to and strike deals with,” Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Russia and Israel have developed their own understandings to avoid clashing in the air and to preserve Israel’s freedom of action in Syria without undermining Russian war plans,” he continued, adding that the developments “restored a measure of predictability to the situation”.

Similarly, Ofer Zalzberg, the Israel/Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, says that until late 2016, “most Israeli leaders and officials expected and hoped Syria would fragment to statelets,” thinking “this would render the most powerful hostile neighbouring country weaker”.

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But with Assad regaining control owing to Russia’s intervention, “Israel established deconfliction and coordination mechanisms with Moscow and learned to strike a balance between the interests of the US and Russia,” he told Al Jazeera.

While Israel is pressuring the United States to keep its forces inside Syria, said Zalzberg, it is also securing Moscow’s consent for Israel using military force against what it considers to be “targets” inside Syria.

Israeli media is also pointing to the shift.

On Tuesday, Zvi Bar’el, the Middle East affairs analyst for Haaretz, wrote that “Israel wants Assad to remain in power”.

With Assad’s dependency on Russia, wrote Bar’el, Syria’s future foreign policy, including its position towards Israel “will be vetted by the Kremlin, thereby at least ensuring coordination with Israel and a reduction in the threat from Syria.”

“In exchange, Israel has committed not to undermine Assad’s rule,” he added.

‘Measure of stability under the Assads’ 

Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since 1948, after the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias, and the Arab-Israeli war that ensued in the same year.

In 1967, Israel occupied the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights and continues to occupy part of it to this day.

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