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Sapping Assad's Strength -- Israel Stirs The Pot In Syria

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For much of the past two years Israel stood sphinx-like on the sidelines of Syria's civil war. Did it want Bashar al-Assad's regime toppled? Did it favor military intervention to help opposition forces? And what did it think of the increasing visibility of Islamist groups in Syria? It was difficult to guess.

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In recent weeks, however, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs. It launched two airstrikes on Syrian positions last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons, in what looked suspiciously like an attempt to corner Washington into direct intervention.

Last week, based on renewed accusations of the use of the nerve agent sarin by Syria, the US said it would start giving military aid directly to the opposition.

With suspicions of Israeli meddling growing, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finally forced last week to deny as "nonsense" evidence that Israeli forces are operating secretly over the border.

Nonetheless, the aura of inscrutability has hardly lifted, stoked by a series of leaks from Israeli officials. Their statements have tacked wildly between threats to oust Assad one moment and denials that Israel has any interest in his departure the next.

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Is Israel sending out contradictory signals to sow confusion, or is it simply confused itself?

The answer can be deduced in the unappealing outcomes before Israel or whoever emerges triumphant. Israel stands to lose strategically if either Assad or the opposition wins decisively.

Assad, and before him his father, Hafez, ensured that for decades the so-called separation of forces line between Syria and Israel, after the latter occupied the Golan Heights in 1967, remained the quietest of all Israel's borders.

A taste of what might happen should the Syrian regime fall was provided in 2011 when more than 1,000 Palestinians massed in the no man's land next to the Golan, while Assad's attention was directed to repressing popular demonstrations elsewhere. At least 100 Palestinians crossed into the Heights, with one even reaching Tel Aviv.

Last week, following intensified fighting between the rebels and the Syrian army over Quneitra, a town next to the only crossing between Israel and Syria, UN peacekeepers from Austria started pulling out because of the dangers.

Briefly the opposition forces captured Quneitra, offering a reminder that any void there would likely suck in Palestinian militants and jihadists keen to settle scores with Israel. That point was underlined by one Israeli official, who told the Times of London: "Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there."

For that reason, the Israeli military is reported to be considering two responses familiar from Lebanon: invading to establish a security zone on the other side of the demarcation line, or covertly training and arming Syrian proxies inside the same area.

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Neither approach turned out well for Israel in Lebanon, but there are indications -- despite Netanyahu's denial -- that Israel is already pursuing the second track.

According to the New York Times, Israel is working with Syrian villagers not allied to Assad or the opposition and offering "humanitarian aid" and "maintaining intense intelligence activity." In an interview with the Argentinian media last month, Assad accused Israel of having gone further, "directly supporting" opposition groups inside Syria with "logistical support," intelligence on potential targets and plans for attacking them.

If the future looks bleak for Israel with Assad gone, it looks no brighter if he entrenches his rule.

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www.jonathan-cook.net

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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