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Israel finds itself pulling for Assad's survival

By Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

Published: Wednesday, March 30 2011 10:35 p.m. MDT

JERUSALEM — As popular unrest threatens to topple another Arab neighbor, Israel finds itself again quietly rooting for the survival of an autocratic yet predictable regime, rather than face an untested new government in its place.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's race to tamp down public unrest is stirring anxiety in Israel that is even higher than its hand-wringing over Egypt's recent regime change. Unlike Israel and Egypt, Israel and Syria have no peace agreement, and Syria, with a large arsenal of sophisticated arms, is one of Israel's strongest enemies.

Though Israel has frequently criticized Assad for cozying up to Iran, arming Lebanon's Hezbollah and sheltering leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, many in Israel are calculating that the country might be better off if Assad keeps the reins of power.

"You want to work with the devil you know," said Moshe Maoz, a former government adviser and Syria expert at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

Several Israeli government and military officials declined to speak in depth about Assad, fearing any comments could backfire given the strong anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world. That's what happened when some Israeli officials attempted to bolster Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he resigned Feb. 11.

"Officially it's better to avoid any reaction and watch the situation," said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the defense minister's policy director, though he predicted Assad's regime would survive the unrest.

Privately, Israeli officials confirmed that although Assad is no friend, he's probably better than the immediate alternatives, which could include a bloody civil war, an Iraq-style insurgency or an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel is worried about what might happen to Syria's arsenal, including Scud missiles, thousands of rockets capable of reaching all over Israel, chemical warheads, advanced surface-to-air systems and an aging air force.

After spending billions of dollars in recent years to bolster its army in an attempt to catch up to Israel's military capability, Syria was reportedly pursing a nuclear program until Israel bombed its suspected reactor facility in 2007.

Despite Syria's ambitions, Assad has been a predictable foe and somewhat of a paper tiger, analysts say. He did not retaliate for Israel's 2007 airstrike and, like his predecessor and father, Hafez Assad, has been careful to avoid direct confrontation with Israel, preferring instead to arm anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Assad has even flirted with peace talks with Israel, though he insists that Israel return the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Mideast war.

"Despite problematic aspects, Bashar maintains a stability," said Eyal Zisser, head of Mideast Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The border is quiet. You know where you stand with him. On the other hand, when you go towards the unknown, it is really unknown."

If Assad were to fall, many in Israel say the best-case scenario would be a government of moderate Sunnis. Syria's Sunni majority has long resented rule by Assad's Alawite-minority family and some hope that a Sunni-led government would break Syria's ties with Iran.

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