Israel wonders: Which side to back in Syria’s civil war?
Dagan said recently that Israel should “do whatever it can to make sure that Syrian President Bashar Assad is removed from power” and expressed skepticism regarding concerns of a powerful and hostile new Sunni Islamist regime emerging from the ashes of Assad’s Syria. He suggested that Western-aligned Gulf countries would ensure that a Sunni-dominated Syria did not veer toward radicalism. Yadlin fell short of advocating Israeli action to help Assad’s fall but also said that the prospect of Sunni radicalism in Syria would not represent a major challenge for Israel and that Assad’s departure would be a major blow to Iran and its allies.
All of this said, however, talks with serving Israeli officials engaged on Syria suggest the existence of a separate school of thought that is deeply concerned at the potential threat of emergent Salafi Islamism in Syria in whatever vacuum is left in the wake of Assad’s downfall. Israel is observing closely the growing strength of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is now thought to have upward of 6,000 fighters under its banner and has made statements suggesting that it plans to attack both Israeli and U.S. targets, once its war with Assad has been concluded.
While rival analyses clearly exist in the Israeli discussion regarding the likely direction of events in Syria, these do not reveal broad differences regarding recommended Israeli actions in the immediate future. In the here and now, Israel is pursuing a policy designed to minimize the threats represented by both sides.
Against the Iran-led bloc, Israel is taking determined action to prevent a Syrian government policy of moving high-grade weapons systems into Lebanon. It is very possible that the May strikes were not the last of their kind. But in any case, these strikes formed only an unusually visible episode in an ongoing, usually clandestine, war being undertaken by Israel to reduce the threat posed by Iran and its various assets in the region.