Is Basher Assad, who has been starring in the headlines lately, an asset or a liability? What policy should Israel adopt vis-à-vis the Alawite regime in Syria? Would it serve Israel's interests if Assad were toppled, strengthened, or weakened?
Many in the Middle East realize that the Alawite regime in Syria is a source for many problems in the region; in the Palestinian context, the Lebanese context, and in the Iraqi context.
Leaving him in office is to perpetuate our conflict with the Palestinians and ethnic hatred in Lebanon, and to intensify the civil war in Iraq. But is he the lesser evil?
Last week a "rescue" conference attended by the Syrian opposition, united in its hatred to Assad and his regime, convened in Berlin. Everyone
Just like the case of the Iraqi opposition a decade ago, hatred of the president is their only source of unification. In the Syrian case, however, there is another unifying factor: The hatred for Israel. If we thought that this opposition would be democratic, pro-western, and that it would perhaps reach some peace agreement with us, it seems we were mistaken. Hence, conference participants attacked Assad for not maintaining "Syrian honor" and for not embarking on a war against Israel. In other words, no salvation will be forthcoming from there.
There is a nice Arabic expression which says "calculate your losses before calculating your profits." The rules of the game in the region have shown us that we should opt for the lighter damage over the heavier damage. When comparing the two options, clearly the damage posed by the Assad family is less than the damage likely to be inflicted by the opposition.
Present-day Syria is a stable country, with a standing army (a relatively weak one) and clearly defined rules. It is far easier for the IDF to fight against a state than against an amorphous terror organization such as Hizbullah. We would be better off with a Syrian army than with entrenched combatants lacking any political responsibility.
We are better off with Syrian stability than with "Iraqization," Islamic caliphs, growing al-Qaeda strength, and severe instability on the Golan, in Lebanon, and in the entire region.
Even the current cloak shielding Israel is quite convenient: Egypt and Jordan – peace; Lebanon and Syria – stability. There is no reason to undermine this at present. On the other hand, Assad shouldn't be strengthened by talking to him or even by getting into any type of war with him. He should simply be ignored, so that he keeps his seat as a weak and isolated leader.
The region needs the stability Syria provides, yet in parallel it also needs a weaker Syrian regime from a regional point of view. This policy is relatively easy to achieve, since Assad is likely to stand trial for the Rafik Hariri murder and to be investigated on other issues such as arms smuggling to Lebanon.
We have to remain alert vis-à-vis Syrian intentions, but should also keep our distance. Hence Assad will benefit, not because of who he is, but rather, because he is the more convenient default. He is the lesser of the evils.
The Alawite regime in Syria is still a source for many problems, but it could be worse. This fact sets off an additional process: He would have much to lose under this policy as well; as it in itself strengthens the stability of all parties in maintaining the status quo.
Basher under international caution, general reservations, investigations and sanctions are currently the preferred options.