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Assad fall would be best option for Israel

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A rebel victory in Syria's civil war would be the most positive outcome for Israel despite fears of instability and a stronger jihadist presence on the Golan should the regime collapse, analysts say.

The Syrian conflict has increasingly affected the Jewish state, as alarm mounts over the deployment of President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons arsenal and the potential for it to fall into the hands of non-state militant groups.

The conflict has split the Israeli defence community into two camps -- those who oppose the fall of Assad, and those who see his ouster as less dangerous for Israel.

But experts believe a rebel victory would have the best geostrategic implications for Israel.

"The defence advantages of Assad going outweigh the potential security risks," said Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

The split in the intelligence community "to some degree reflects the split that existed prior to the uprising in Syria," Spyer said.

"The Assad regime is a dangerous force because of its alliance with Iran" -- but it is "not fanatical," and has never supported hardline Islamist groups such as those leading the rebel fighting.

These groups pose the lesser risk, he maintains.

"The presence of fledgling armed groups on the border... is a concern.

"But Assad going would be a blow to Hezbollah, which is the most powerful paramilitary force" opposing Israel in the region, Spyer said.

Earlier this month, Israel implicitly admitted carrying out a January air strike on a weapons convoy in Syria thought to be en route to Lebanon's Hezbollah -- a long-time Damascus ally.

Mike Herzog, former head of strategic planning in the Israeli army and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed.

"Israel would be better off without the Assad regime," he said, describing the Syrian president as "a lynchpin" connecting Iran and Hezbollah.

"If the regime collapses this will be a very serious blow to Iran, Hezbollah and the whole axis.

"This doesn't come without risks -- the risk of Islamists and jihadists becoming a dominant force in a future Syria," Herzog cautioned.

But Assad clinging onto power would "outweigh the risk of Islamist elements coming to the fore. Of course that's not something Israelis would like to see... (but they) have to choose between two evils," he said.

A victorious jihadist-dominated rebel force would not be able to form as cohesive and large-scale a threat to Israel as Assad, Iran and Hezbollah working together, Herzog said.

"There are other elements in Syria. It's a very complex mixture of ethnic and sectarian groups. It's more likely to go in the direction of... areas controlled by different elements.

"We're more likely to see this scenario than a central government with control over the whole of Syria," he said.

The perceived jihadist threat, whilst a concern, was far less worrying than the "possibility of chemical or non-chemical weapons falling into wrong hands. This is a much more complicated challenge to deal with," said Herzog.

Eli Karmon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, also saw the fallout of Assad's ouster as a more manageable threat.

"The most important thing is to see the fall of the regime. This will provoke ... the weakening of Iran's strategic position in the Middle East... and Hezbollah will be much more isolated and under pressure," he said.

Karmon acknowledged the opposing view in certain defence and strategic circles.

"There are some who think the best thing would be to have the regime and opposition fighting as long as possible in order to weaken (both of) them," he told AFP.

In any case, Israel cannot decisively influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict, the analysts noted, saying the best course of action for the Jewish state was to avoid involvement unless its security is directly threatened.

Israel has already responded with fire to mortar and small arms fire spilling over the ceasefire line in the occupied Golan Heights this year.

What is assumed in government is that "40 years of quiet along the northern border will come to an end," Herzog said.

At that stage, "both sides in the Israeli (intelligence) discussion would have to agree on the practical measures needed to be taken, which would boil down to strengthening border security," said Spyer.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130430/assad-fall-would-be-best-option-israel