“Given the degree of hostility between Israel and Syria, it might seem odd that for much of the past year, Israel’s leaders have been fairly quiet about the uprising taking place within its northern neighbour. Israel has deliberately kept a low profile, not least because it knows any intervention could be manipulated for propaganda purposes within the conflict. Behind the scenes, however, there has been an evolving discussion among Israeli policy-makers and strategists about how to respond – a discussion which is now entering a new phase.
The first phase was in the opening months of the uprising. As Israel, like everyone else, tried to figure out which way the conflict was evolving, a debate opened up within Israel’s security establishment over whether it was better if Assad – the devil it knew – hung on, or was displaced. On the one hand Assad’s regime is an obvious menace to Israeli security, providing support for Palestinian extremists, a vital ally for Iran in the Arab world, and a conduit for Iranian arms flowing to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. On the other hand, the Assad regime kept Syria’s border with Israel quiet, and Assad’s fall could lead to the the rise of an Islamist regime, or a chaotic situation which might destabilise Israel’s northern border. This debate was always fairly academic in Israeli circles, since Israel had few policy levers to effect what was happening in Syria either way.
The second stage of the discussion began a few months into the uprising, when Israeli analysts, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, came to the conclusion that Assad’s days were numbered. Then the focus shifted to anticipating the consequences of Assad’s fall. Of particular concern was the possibility that chaos in Syria would lead to its huge arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles reaching Hezbollah or others that might use them to threaten Israel.”