A weakened Bashar Assad is preferable for Syria and the whole region to a takeover by rebel forces increasingly ruled by Islamic extremists, Israeli officials reportedly said overnight Friday-Saturday.
“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,” one senior intelligence officer told the London-based Times.
A defense official said Israel had originally thought too little of Assad’s ability to maintain control of his country despite an increasingly bloody and gruesome two-year war. “We originally underestimated Assad’s staying power and overestimated the rebels’ fighting power,” he told the Times.
Suspicions of increasing Islamic influence over rebels forces have been growing for some time, with evidence mounting that al-Qaida- and Salafi-linked groups are gaining power among the forces.
On Wednesday, a gruesome video posted online showed Syrian rebels from al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), the Syrian rebel cell associated with al-Qaeda, invoking sharia law as they sentenced soldiers loyal to Bashar Assad to death, shooting 11 of them in the back of the head.
A similar video circled the web on Tuesday, showing rebels from the Raqqa province publicly executing three men purported to be military officers. The stark horror of the struggle was also underlined early this week with the widespread circulation of a graphic video apparently documenting a Syrian rebel cutting an organ out of the corpse of a slain regime soldier and taking a bite out of it.
On Friday, senior Defense Ministry official Maj.-Gen. (Res) Amos Gilad said in an interview with Israel Radio that Assad is in total control of his country’s weapons systems and is acting sensibly with regard to Israel, in comments apparently intended to calm escalating tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus following reported Israeli airstrikes earlier this month.
Gilad stressed that Israel is not striving to topple Assad’s regime, and that reported recent IAF attacks on Iranian weapons shipments in Syria en route to Hezbollah are motivated by a desire and an obligation to defend Israel.
Brigadier-General Tamir Hyman, the commander of the IDF division responsible for the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights, said that Assad’s army “has not fallen apart” despite the two years of fighting, and that its command structure was intact, adding that Israel had “no interest” in one side prevailing over the other in the civil war.
Also underlining growing concerns over friction between Israel and Syria, Maj.-Gen (ret.) Amos Yadlin, the highly-respected former head of the Israeli army’s Military Intelligence hierarchy compared current Israeli-Syrian tensions to the strains that presaged the 1967 Israel-Arab war.
He also said Moscow, by continuing to stand by Assad, was signaling that it was not going to let the US get its hands on Syria.
Yadlin, a one-time fighter pilot, ex-head of IDF Military Intelligence and former Israeli military attaché to the US who now heads a prestigious Tel Aviv think tank, warned that Syria’s embattled president might well retaliate were Israel to again strike at weapons convoys in Syria, as it has done twice this month already.
The Israeli remarks come at the heels of reported international efforts, by the US, Russia, Turkey and the UN, to end the Syrian conflict by bringing together regime officials and opposition forces to negotiate a transfer of power — efforts complicated by Moscow’s announcement Thursday that it would proceed with its planned delivery of the highly sophisticated S-300 air-defense system to Syria, and despite pleas from Israel not to do so.
During their meeting earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the delivery could lead to war.
On Friday, the US slammed Russia’s decision to continue arming the Assad regime, warning that it’s arsenal could be overcome. “It’s at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering, so it’s ill-timed and very unfortunate,” chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon.
AP, Ron Friedman and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.