Assad could prevail in Syrian civil war, minister says, reflecting shift in Israel's assessment
There is a “real possibility” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “could survive Syria’s civil war and even prevail in it” against the rebels trying to topple him, Israeli International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz told a group of foreign journalists in Jerusalem on Monday.
Steinitz’s comments reflect the recent turnaround in Assad’s fortunes, with success on the battlefield thanks to immense military aid from Hezbollah, financial aid by Iran, and diplomatic cover by Russia. The assessment also underscores the changing nature of the Syrian conflict and Israel’s views on it. Israeli security officials were initially convinced that Assad’s demise was only a matter of time. Last July, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Assad regime was “at the beginning of its end.”
Delivering a veiled threat on Monday, Steinitz said, “It is in Assad’s interest not to provoke Israel into a Syrian intervention.”
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, quoted a statement made by Assad to a visiting Jordanian politician in which the Syrian leader supposedly said he was “very serious” about his intention to “open a front against Israel on the Golan” should Israel intervene in the Syrian civil war or mount an attack against Syria’s missile systems.
“Establishing a front line against Israel in the Golan [Heights] is a very serious thing and it will entail more than random artillery fire,” Assad was quoted as saying Sunday, in an opinion piece written by a Jordanian politician. “Syria will have a well-planned response, which will have long-lasting ramifications,” he reportedly said.
The op-ed further quoted Assad as saying that Syria’s retaliation will be “similar to that waged by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.”
The credibility of the Al-Akhbar report is questionable. In late May the newspaper quoted the Syrian president as supposedly boasting that his country had already received the first shipment of Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles it was expecting. Assad’s office itself rolled back that report, saying that the Syrian president never made that remark, but spoke generally about existing contracts with the Russians being fulfilled.
The Al-Akhbar report was not verified by any Western source, and although Moscow said it would follow through on the arms sale, which was inked in 2010, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the system has yet to be delivered to Damascus. Moscow’s Interfax news agency reported last week that while Russia is training Syrian military officers on anti-aircraft systems, their training “does not include the advanced S-300 system at this time.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel would “retaliate against anyone who threatens to harm Israel or brings it harm.”
Speaking before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Netanyahu said, “The government is guided by the need to protect the public. We are ready for any scenario.”
Committee Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beytenu) addressed the European Union’s decision last week not to include Hezbollah in its list of terror organizations, despite the United States and Israel’s efforts to that effect.
“Excluding Hezbollah from the EU’s terror watch list may make the EU irrelevant to Israel,” he said.
Commenting on Austria’s decision to pull out of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) stationed in the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights, over the growing violence in Syria, which is edging closer to the Israel-Syria border, Lieberman said, “We have to realize that we have no one to rely on but ourselves.”