Political Analysis: Israel Bets Big on the Syrian Uprising

Until very recently though, Israeli’s leaders had been hesitant to speak out against the atrocities, leading Western pundits to suggest that Israel actually preferred the rule of the House of Assad to the chaos that might engulf Syria in its stead. Mr. Assad is, after all, the devil Israelis know—a ruthless dictator and staunch enemy, who nonetheless kept the peace on the Golan Heights. In the Arab world, Israel is commonly portrayed as Mr. Assad’s partner in genocide. Cartoons depicting Israeli and Syrian tanks side-by-side, flattening Sunni Arabs, have become common in Arab media (conveniently ignoring the decades-long, bitter rivalry between the two nations).

The fact is that Israel, perhaps more than any other nation in the region, stands to benefit from Mr. Assad’s downfall. Despite the 40-year stability along their shared border, the between the two states has long been boiling beneath the surface. The Syrian military is the focus of a high number of the Israeli Defense Forces’ large-scale training exercises. In 2007, an Israeli air strike against a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor sent both militaries careening toward the border for a confrontation that was only narrowly averted. Most importantly, Mr. Assad remains the key link to Iranian influence in the eastern Mediterranean—hosting and funding Iranian-backed militant groups that have clashed with Israel in Gaza and Lebanon over the past decade.

The silence from Jerusalem over the past 15 months of Syrian conflict was not due to Israeli fears over a destabilized Syria, nor of the rise of a more radical, Sunni-dominated regime. It was rather part of Israel’s closely adhered-to government policy aimed at preventing the Assad regime from delegitimizing its opponents by portraying their struggle as a foreign conspiracy. The decision to break that silence over the weekend was also carefully strategized—both in timing and in nature.

In condemning Assad’s regime, the Israelis appealed directly to the hearts and minds of the Sunni-Arab world at a time when both find themselves pitted against a common enemy: Mr. Assad. Accusations of Iranian involvement in Syria are meant to remind Mr. Assad’s opponents in the Gulf that Israel stands on their side in the struggle against Shia regional domination.

The recent appointment of Syran-Kurdish activist Abdelbasset Sida to head the main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, now presents Jerusalem with an opportunity to express tacit support for a possible successor to Mr. Assad. The Kurds have traditionally maintained positive views of Israel, a relationship that grew from their peaceful coexistence with Jews in northern Iraq prior to their expulsion after World War II.

Furthermore, the Syrian conflict has emerged as an issue of broad-based concern in Israeli society. Both the majority Jewish population and minority Arabs have staged protests and expressed their outrage over the killings taking place across the border. For Jewish Israelis, the world’s refusal to intervene in Syria has evoked memories of the Holocaust and other pogroms, fueling demands for the government to take a stand against the killings.

Ultimately, the Israelis are convinced that the hourglass of Mr. Assad’s tenure has been flipped on its head, and have begun making preparations for the day after his ousting. Israel’s defense establishment has kept a close eye on Syria’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons and is developing military options to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands—namely Hezbollah. The Israeli military has already begun planning for the eventual absence of Mr. Assad’s forces on their shared border and is preparing for a wave of infiltrations and refugees.

While few in Jerusalem expect a peace agreement to follow Mr. Assad’s downfall, Israeli leaders have made their position clear to the region and world: When it comes to Syria, they’ll take anyone but Mr. Assad.

This article was written by Daniel Nisman and was also published in the Wall Street Journal on July 14, 2012