TEL AVIV – Of all the unknowns surrounding the conflict in Syria, the most complex puzzle is what would happen if President Bashar al-Assad loses power.
On the surface, it seems obvious that the world would be a safer place without a terror-financing dictator who used chemical weapons on his own people and in charge of a major Middle Eastern country.
On the other hand, chaos that would likely come if Assad were to fall could turn Syria into an even more volatile and dangerous place.
This vexing question confronting the world is the subject of a hot debate in Israel, which may have more to gain or lose than any other nation based on which way Syria turns.
Though Syria has remained one of Israel’s major enemies for decades, Assad has kept things relatively quiet along the Israeli-Syrian border. He knows any large-scale military action against Israel would trigger a devastating counteroffensive, so he’s been reluctant to use force – and due to his iron-fisted rule, whatever he says, goes.
But that dynamic may change if his regime falls and a number of rebel groups clamor for power in the chaos that follows.
Aviv Oreg, founder of the Israeli intelligence-consulting firm CeifiT, has been following global terrorist movements since the 1990s, and served as the former head of the “Al Qaeda and Global Jihad” desk in the Israel Defense Forces' military intelligence unit.
He explained to me in a meeting last week that jihadists throughout the world have been flooding into Syria to battle the Assad regime. Though intelligence assessments show that about 75 percent of the Syrian rebels are mostly focused on nationalist concerns, he said, the other quarter of them are in some way linked to al Qaeda or similar groups.
The problem is that all the rebels have been working closely together, so it’s difficult to separate the nationalist from the jihadist elements. And that could be dangerous if Assad loses his grip on power.
“Assad is a more realistic pragmatic politician that at this stage has a lot to lose, but these (jihadists) have nothing to lose,” Oreg explained. “They are over there, they have no accountability at all and if they will get access to a chemical warhead and a missile, they will launch it against Israel for sure.”
He described it as “a whole new ballgame” if jihadists gain access to chemical weapons.
“To be honest, I am much more concerned with these guys that have no accountability and are loose cannons operating over there, than other elements like Iran or even Assad, that have something to lose,” he said.
Daniel Nisman, intelligence manager of the Middle East division of Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical-risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv, said that for all the uncertainty and new potential dangers the fall of Assad could bring, ultimately, the Israeli military would prefer if he were out of power.
“If you look at the last two decades, the Assad regime has basically been the source of Israel’s problems, even if he kept the (Israel-Syria) border quiet, he made sure that every other border was not quiet, with the help of Iran,” Nisman argued.
“He made Hezbollah the most powerful militia, which Israel fought a very nasty war with in 2006. He made Hamas an extremely powerful militia, which Israel has many conflicts with,” Nisman said.
With Assad gone, Nisman insisted, it would eliminate the last remaining existential threat among nations’ bordering Israel. (Iran does not share a border Israel.)
“Israel would trade a border with some jihadis around it, which we could easily contain like we’ve seen in Sinai and Gaza, than have this existential threat that’s just making this region miserable for us,” he said.