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Israel fears collapse of Syrian regime could mean a second volatile border and increased jihadist threat.
JERUSALEM — Israel's top military and intelligence commanders convened on Wednesday to discuss contingencies in anticipation of the collapse of the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For Israel, the end of the Assad era and the mayhem that Israeli analysts predict will ensue signifies a second volatile border, which, like its frontier with Egypt, after decades of quiet may turn troublesome.
"What I expect to see in Syria is the definition of chaos, like what we saw in Libya, various gangs vying for leadership and no initial central government," said Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University professor of Middle Eastern Studies.
Following two weeks in which several high-ranking Syrian generals defected, the bombing that devastated Syria's elite military cadre is widely being interpreted in Israeli circles as a point of no return for the Assad regime, even if it does not result in its immediate demise.
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Elie Podeh, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Syria, said there was no doubt that the regime would soon fall.
“I think today's attack is very significant and will cause major upheaval for the Syrian government,” he said. “The rebels are talking about the beginning of the end, and this time, it looks like it really is the beginning of the end. We are talking about instability that will get worse."
Speaking with Israel Army Radio, Magali Wahaba, a Druze member of parliament from the Galilee, who is known to closely follow Syria, said "what happened today has removed the last remnant of fear from the rebels."
On Tuesday, Israel's chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, warned a parliamentary committee that elements of global jihadi forces are taking advantage of the power vacuum in Damascus as the Assad regime "disintegrates," and may be moving into Syria with the intention of staging attacks against Israel's northern border on the Golan Heights.
Most analysts believe that the likelihood of war between Israel and Syria remains low. Assad has been forced to relocate soldiers normally stationed on the Israeli border to reinforce his positions in Damascus.
For Israel, other fears now predominate. In addition to the infiltration of extremist elements, Israel's principal concern is about the fate of Syria's store of unconventional weaponry, including long-range missiles and chemical and biological stockpiles.
"Two things are of supreme importance right now for Israel," Zisser says, "to maintain quiet on the border, and to be extremely vigilant about movements of advanced weapons. It is a complex reality."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak summoned Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the entire Israeli high command for consultations on the deteriorating security situation. As the meetings ended, Israel Army Radio reported that discussions were held about the possibility of Israel striking any convoys seen to be transporting weaponry from Syrian stockpiles towards Hezbollah positions.
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The radio reported that "intelligence and military officers are analyzing the possible repercussions of a strike" if the most worrisome weapons are mobilized.
As Tal Lev-Ram, the station's seasoned military analyst was describing the possibility of "acts of Hezbollah terror against Israeli targets worldwide, to dissipate some of the pressure on Assad," the news anchor interrupted him with breaking news of a terrorist attack against a busload of Israeli tourists at the beachfront resort in Bulgaria. While details remain sketchy, by the evening seven Israeli were declared dead and at least 30 wounded.
While other Israeli officials pointed their fingers at Hezbollah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised retaliation against Iran.
"Iran is responsible for the terror attack in Bulgaria, and we will have a strong response against Iranian terror," he said.
Podeh describes the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as "critical."
"Syria, which is in the middle of Iran and Hezbollah, has been vital. There is a good chance that any new regime will be a very different thing. If it represents the majority in Syria, which is Sunni, there is no reason that it will continue to sustain the aims of Iran and Hezbollah, who are Shiites."
In this respect, he says, the change of leadership in Syria may eventually be positive for Israel. "Even if they are not eager to sign peace, the fact they are likely to be less sympathetic with Iran is good."
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Zisser, who is an authority on the Assad dynasty, said the countdown to the end had begun.
“It is a moment of truth. He can fill the positions of people who were killed in today's attack, but the loss of Asef Shawkat, for example, who was both deputy defense minister and Assad's brother-in-law, is a major blow. The intimate circle that stood with him for the past year-and-a-half of rebellion has now vanished. I think the worst thing for Assad is that many parts of the Syrian populace stayed on his side until now, and most officers remained loyally at their posts, but the dynamic may change now, with people saying 'let's abandon the sinking ship.'"
Still, military analysts are pointing out that Assad has gone to some lengths to exhibit an attitude of business as usual, no matter how devastating the blow.
"It’s a war of attrition now," said Jacky Hougi, the Arab Affairs correspondent on Israel Army radio. "Assad's army is still holding together, mostly with Allawite and Druze soldiers who have remained intensely loyal. Assad just announced that he would defeat the Zionist enemy."