Israel wary but hopeful as Syrians revolt

Syrians in the Israeli-occupied Golan

After watching with trepidation as a popular revolt in Egypt swept away long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, Israel is now casting a cautious eye to the north, where unrest threatens to engulf Syria.
But while Mubarak was seen as a bulwark of the peace between Israel and its southern neighbour, it is a different story in hostile Syria, which remains officially in a state of war with the Jewish state.
There Israel could benefit from a more democratic government, officials and analysts believe, even if it is one still led by President Bashar al-Assad after he has been forced to make reforms.
The Jewish state's best hope would be that Syria could be torn away from its alliance with Israel's arch-foe Iran and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
"If the Syrians understand that their country’s future lies in political openness and peace, and if there comes a regime that will not support Hezbollah and Hamas, I think it’s a big opportunity, a great opportunity, for Israel," Amos Yadlin the recently retired head of military intelligence, told an American think tank last week.
While the border with Syria has been largely quiet in recent years, Israel has repeatedly accused Damascus of acting as a conduit for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and of hosting Palestinian groups opposed to the existence of the Jewish state.
Yadlin told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that while Israel instinctively feared the democratic movement sweeping the Arab world because of the chances for instability and uncertainty, ultimately it could benefit.
"Israel cannot remain indifferent to the values that brought the Egyptian people to Tahrir Square, advancing the values that we believe in -- freedom, justice, rule of law, democracy," he said.
"Even if in the short term it may be more dangerous, more splits, in the long run I believe it’s a very, very positive process that we should support," said Yadlin, who retired in November.
Serving officials have been more circumspect, however, saying Israel needs to wait to see how events unfold in Syria before formulating a new policy.
"I think that all the regimes in the region are unstable. I think the Assad regime is facing unprecedented challenges, the likes of which it has not seen since Hama," Defence Minister Ehud Barak told public radio.
He was referring to a Syrian town where Assad's late father Hafez sent in the air force to crush an Islamist-led uprising in 1982.
"He (Bashar al-Assad) is trying to cope and the Turks are trying to open his eyes and convince him to implement reforms. But how can anyone know what is going to happen?"
The Israeli foreign ministry was similarly cautious.
"There is a very, very high level of uncertainty over everything that is happening in the Arab countries recently and the only thing we can do is observe, analyse and try to understand and prepare for every possible scenario," spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
But analysts said that on the key issue of Israel-Syria peace there was unlikely to be any change in the near future, no matter who is in power in Damascus.
"There is hardly any connection between who is the ruler in Syria and peace because the Israeli government is the one who refuses to withdraw from the Golan Heights," said Alon Liel, a former director general of the foreign ministry and the chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society.
"Any Syrian ruler would still demand the withdrawal from the Golan Heights," he said.
Israel captured the strategic plateau in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.
Despite a 1949 armistice agreement, the two neighbours remain technically at a state of war.
Syria has consistently demanded Israel return the Golan as a condition for peace. Several rounds of peace talks between Israel and Syria have broken down without any agreement.
The plateau which overlooks much of northern Israel is home to more than 18,000 Syrians, mostly Druze, an offshoot of Islam, and nearly 20,000 Jewish settlers.
Despite the cautious optimism, Israel was also preparing for much darker scenarios emerging on its northern border.
"If chaos is in Syria, and the missiles and the chemical weapons have gone to some faction or terrorist, it will become a serious issue that we have to look at," said Yadlin.