Even in our world colored with grays and not only blacks and whites, the fall of the Assad regime in Damascus would be a great blessing for the Middle East and the world. Nonetheless, for some Israelis this would be a hard blow to suffer, because it might signify that Israel will be stuck with the Golan Heights for the long future.
The list of Syria’s misdemeanors and crimes is legion. From belligerent Soviet ally to godfather and patron of Palestinian terrorism, Hafez the father and Bashar the son crafted a policy strategy that demonized Israel, betrayed the Arab world, consolidated the regional hegemony of Iran, and perpetuated an Alawite sectarian regime in defiance of the Sunni Muslim majority in the country. Acting against their countrymen, the Assads persecuted the Kurds, intimidated the Druze, and despoiled the tiny Jewish community.
The quest for power whetted the ambition of the mountain family from Qardaha. They reached for rule in the 1960s, grabbed it in 1970, and held it with a vengeance employing a brutal dictatorship, a regime of fear, while waving tattered Arabist anti-Israeli slogans.
The invasion of Lebanon in 1976 that culminated in a ruthless and bloodthirsty occupation only seemingly ended in 2005; throughout it was a scandalous violation of Lebanese human rights, national identity, and political independence. A series of Syrian assassinations of key Christian Lebanese personalities did not exclude, we shall never doubt, the former Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Syrian interventionism also played a destructive role in Iraq to foil America’s goal of fashioning stability in the post-Saddam era on the fractured Baghdadian political landscape.
Israeli sorrows and sufferings from the Assads’ Syria were far more insidious in comparison to any inflicted upon the Jewish state by any other country. Perhaps this litany of havoc began with the October 1973 Yom Kippur War that continued until May 1974 on the Golan front. Syria’s torturing of Israeli POWs should never be forgotten.
The smashing of Lebanon in the 1970s, as in the Hundred Days War in Beirut in 1978, and supporting Palestinian warfare against the Lebanese, including the barbaric massacre of Christian communities, was designed to deny Israel a free Lebanon that would be a friendly neighbor.
Syria allying with Hezbollah from the 1980s and facilitating its armaments pipeline and fighting doctrine bled Israel, demoralized the Jews, and contributed to the reprehensible and reckless IDF withdrawal in May, 2000. When Syria forged intimate ties with Iran, soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it became clear that Khomeini’s jihad was now comfortably pre-positioned on Israel’s northern border regions.
Syria worked assiduously to strategically isolate Israel in the Middle East in putting together a politically unorthodox alliance system. Israel’s former regional partner, Sunni non-Arab Turkey, was enticed by its own ambitions to adopt an adversarial anti-Israel position.
The Syrian-Turkey connection warmed up, and their joint pro-Palestinian stance emitted a virulent rancor. The Damascene headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad radiated Assad’s centralizing leadership role in the war against Israel. This was no less apparent with Syria’s emerging nuclear program, which Israel confronted in bombing its facility in 2007.
All the while official and non-official Israeli movers and shakers, loyal to their paradigm and disloyal to their people, fantasized that Bashar Assad was really interested in peace with Israel, and but for Jerusalem’s obstinacy a deal would be concluded.
This interpretation was divorced from the glaring strategic data and Syrian political connections that had ripened over the years. The fact that the Golan Heights was a tranquil front since 1974 did not prove the Assads’ inclination toward peace with Israel, but rather indicated that the multi-front war Syria was directing against Israel could be superbly effective as an indirect strategy conducted with impunity.
When and if the Assad regime falls, the collapse of Iranian hegemony across the region may not be far behind. The Arab Sunni world will rejoice that wayward Syria has been separated from the Tehran Shiite-dominated axis. Losing its strategic hinterland and ideological benefactor, Hezbollah too will suffer a blow which will catalyze re-arranging power relations in the forlorn land of the cedars.
Freedom in Damascus will contribute to the recovery of freedom in Beirut. I believe, in rejecting the fossilized Israeli establishment view, that the end of Syrian domination of Lebanon is absolutely the moral and reasonable political interest for Israel.
A regime change in Damascus opens up the possibility of various domestic options: a Sunni fundamentalist state, a liberal polity, maybe a federated entity based on the geo-ethnic pluralism of the country. Despite turbulence in Syrian streets and politics, Israel’s military might assures her safety as she possesses both deterrent and offensive capabilities that will challenge Syria in the days ahead, regardless of the outcome of the revolutionary changes that now and will confront her.
And with the Assads gone, the Middle East as a whole will be able to move to transcend the state of terror and tension with which the Syrian regime poisoned the political atmosphere for over four long decades.
Dr. Mordechai Nisan is a retired teacher of Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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