JERUSALEM — Israel has reversed its assessment about the staying power of Syrian President Bashar Assad and now thinks he’ll remain in control of at least part of his country for some time to come – a conclusion that makes it likely, a growing number of officials think, that an escalation of violence between the two countries may be inevitable.
Israeli defense officials said that not only was the Syrian army outperforming expectations against rebel forces but also that previous forecasts of Assad’s fall depended on the belief that vast numbers of his supporters would defect, a prediction that hasn’t come to pass.
Adding to the assessment that Assad won’t fall quickly is the Israeli failure to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. The advanced weapons system will significantly boost Syria’s ability to stave off intervention in its civil war, and "change the balance of power" in the region, Israeli officials said.
"The model that Israel had been using, the predictions we had been making, were based on far more defections from the Assad regime, and more fighting prowess and organization from the rebels,” said one Israeli military official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of Israel’s strict military censorship laws. “We have had to re-evaluate our models in the last few months, and we now see indications for very different scenarios in Syria."
Israel apparently isn’t alone in adjusting its assessment of how long Assad can hold out. Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported earlier this week that Germany’s intelligence agency also has fundamentally changed its view and now thinks that the Assad regime is "more stable than it has been in a long time and is capable of undertaking successful operations against rebel units at will."
U.S. officials haven’t publicly changed their position, but analysts have noted that while President Barack Obama has reiterated recently that Assad must go, American officials no longer say his fall is imminent. Obama first declared that Assad should step down in August 2011, nearly two years ago.
Additionally, Secretary of State John Kerry has agreed to convene, in cooperation with Russia, a meeting next month under an agreement reached in Geneva last summer that didn’t specifically call for Assad to step down, though the country’s opposition in exile considers Assad’s departure non-negotiable.
For Israeli officials, the possibility that Assad will survive, at least for some period of time, is seen as both a positive and a negative.
The negative, officials say, is that the longer Assad stays in power and the stronger his position becomes, the more likely it is that violence will break out between the two countries. In the space of 24 hours this week, Israel’s top three defense officials all raised that prospect as news agencies reported exchanges of fire along the countries’ tense border in the Golan Heights.
Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the commander of Israel’s air force, said Israel could easily be dragged into Syria’s civil war. “Isolated events can quickly escalate, and oblige us to be ready to act within a matter of hours,” he said. His comments were seconded by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who said that along the Syrian-Israeli border, "reality could be upended from one moment to the next, and we need to be prepared for that.” The head of Israel’s military, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, later added that Syria was preparing to "up aggression" against Israel and the Israeli military "will defend and respond if and when we need to."
The upside? As long as Assad remains in control of even a reduced part of the country – along with its vast weapons stockpiles and the newly acquired S-300 missiles – rebel groups will be more focused on battling his forces than on attacking Israel. Indeed, many senior Israeli political and defense officials now say that’s the preferred scenario.
"Better the devil we know than the devils we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there, “ said one Israeli intelligence officer in the north, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters. “If Syria is going to fight, and if they are going to fight with deadly weapons, better they busy themselves fighting each other than fighting us."
Senior Israeli officials, including former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the former head of the Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, had predicted in the last year that Assad’s fall was imminent and that the Syrian president had a matter of "months, maybe years" until he was either killed or forced to flee the country. Obama, visiting Jordan two months ago, echoed those assessments as he spoke of concern for Syria "the day after" Assad would fall.
But in recent weeks, the idea of the “day after” Assad had become alarming for Israeli officials as they contemplated a situation where the war against Assad would be followed not by peace but by violence among the many factions now present in Syria. Intelligence assessments also have concluded that the opposition groups that are fighting in Syria were increasingly likely to be hostile to Israel.
"You can see that the rebels in Syria are fighting the army and the Assad regime," Chief of Staff Gantz told Israel’s Army Radio. "But it is clear that there will be another war there. It could be between themselves, but also could be turned against us. I have the impression that we will see both."
Israel’s air force has shelled military convoys in Syria at least twice in the last two months. On both occasions, Israeli officials said the Syrian regime was sending advanced weapons systems to the Hezbollah military movement in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Syrian weapons convoys were a "red line" he wouldn’t allow to be crossed, and that Israel would act to prevent dangerous weapons from reaching the hands of militant groups.
But Israeli officials now say that if Israel launches more airstrikes there’s a "high likelihood" that the Assad regime will respond.
"Looking at the statements coming from Damascus, it appears clear that the Syrian president will not ignore future airstrikes, but use them as an opportunity to act against Israel," said a high-ranking military official quoted in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Maariv. He pointed to statements by the Assad regime earlier this week, when the Syrian army took responsibility for the first time for shelling that landed in Israel. Previously, no one had taken responsibility for such shelling.
Syrian state TV also announced that the Syrian army had destroyed an Israel Defense Forces armored vehicle that had entered the demilitarized zone between the countries in Bir Ajam and that at least one person was inside when it exploded.
"The IDF believes the assumption of responsibility for the fire is part of a new policy adopted by Assad since the aerial attacks in April to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights," defense correspondent Gili Cohen wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Israeli officials have remained adamant, however, that they’ll do what they can to avoid war with Syria, and they’ve vowed that despite the new intelligence assessments, they’ll play no role in bolstering either the Assad regime or the rebels.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf