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Syrian unrest raises fears in Israel about regional stability

Israel is taking a wait-and-see approach to the uprising in neighboring Syria. But concerns are mounting about the implications of a possible collapse of Assad's regime and the threat to Israel's long-term stability.

A hand painted in Syrian national colors flashes a victory sign

The escalating tumult in Syria has made neighboring Israel jittery

An Israeli radio station reported this week that Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has issued strict instructions to his ministers to remain silent on events across the northern border in Syria.

A brief statement issued by Netanyahu's office says the Israeli government continues to believe that Iran will not intervene in Syria to support embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Iran and Syria have been close allies for over 30 years.

Though the Syrian regime is considered Israel's adversary, the two countries have not fought each other for the past 40 years. The border region around the Golan Heights has been fairly quiet. Officials from both sides have even repeatedly made diplomatic efforts in the past –most recently in 2008 - to forge a peace agreement, but without success.

Nonetheless, a widening crackdown by Assad's forces on anti-government demonstrators has rattled Israelis. Mass protests in Syria are posing the greatest threat to the Assad family's four decades in power. Rights groups say more than 400 people have been killed across Syria since mid-March.

Fears about extremists seizing power

Israel's military is reportedly closely monitoring developments in Syria. Many believe that any shake-up in Syria's political leadership holds both risks and opportunities for Israel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli prime minister Banjamin Netanyahu

Israeli leader Netayahu, right, is worried about what might come after Assad's possible exit

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel would like to see democratic change in the Middle East but expressed concern that "democracy will be hijacked by radical regimes or militant Islamic regimes."

That view is commonly heard in Israel.

"There are many dangers here. On the one hand, it's clear that it would be good for us if the Middle East were to become more democratic," Mike Herzog, a brigadier general in the defense forces, told Israel's army radio service. "But the path is fraught with risks. There all kinds of anti-democratic forces who will try to push their way forward and seize power during the transition from dictatorship to democracy."

Those same concerns were echoed in Israel during the revolution in Egypt. There were fears that the toppling of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, Israel's strongest Arab allay, would jeopardize a three-decade-old peace treaty and help to boost Islamists.

Many Israelis have the same concerns over Syria. An Islamist regime instead of Assad's moderate ruling Alawite minority in power in Damascus is perceived as a grave threat to Israel.

An anti-Israeli ‘axis'

The bigger question preoccupying Israeli analysts and journalists is what implications regime change in Syria would have for the wider region.

Syria has cultivated ties with Israel's fiercest enemies - Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Some believe changes in Syria's regime, or its disappearance altogether, could potentially weaken this anti-Israeli "axis" which would work in Israel's favor.

"Iran is the backbone of Syria. That's why the Iranians are now hugely worried about losing their puppet in Syria, their axis in the Middle East, their influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon," Zvi Jeheskeli from Israel's Channel 10 television said recently.

Though it remains difficult to predict whether Assad will manage to stay in power or go, most agree that irreversible change is under way in the region.

Some in Israel however are wary that the current unrest convulsing Syria could imperil decades of quiet along the shared border and pose a real threat to Israel.

"It cannot be ruled out that a crisis in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip would be an opportune event for Assad and his Iranian allies," Itamar Rabinovich, the former chief negotiator with Syria, wrote in a recent article. "And a war against Israel could once again unite the government and opposition in Syria."

Author: Sebastian Engelbrecht (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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