JERUSALEM —In a shift, Israeli officials are welcoming the prospect that Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, will be overthrown, an event Defense Minister Ehud Barak says could be weeks away.
The officials’ new tone contrasts with conventional thinking here in years past, when Assad was credited with maintaining calm along the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights and considered a stable alternative to a possible takeover by Islamic fundamentalists.
As Assad has come under mounting pressure from a revolt at home and moves to isolate him abroad, initial wariness by Israeli officials of speaking publicly about the fate of his regime has given way to open speculation about how long he can hold on to power, who might replace him and the possible risks of a chaotic disintegration of his rule.
“Basically, it’s inevitable,” Barak said in a telephone interview before flying Wednesday to Washington for meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other administration officials. “The Assad family, through their own behavior, have lost their last drop of legitimacy and put themselves beyond the point of no return with their brutal slaughter of their own people. He has ceased to be something relevant.”
“It might take many weeks,” Barak added, “but it’s not a matter of months or years.”
In a separate interview, Moshe Yaalon, the minister of strategic affairs, said: “It’s a matter of time and bloodshed before we will witness Assad’s departure. That is our assessment.”
Obama administration officials have expressed equal certainty that Assad will eventually leave, but they and Arab countries that are trying to persuade him to stand down anticipate a far longer timeline extending well into next year.
“Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of [a] dead man walking,” Frederic Hof, the State Department’s point man for Syria, told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday. “But the real question is, how many steps remain?”
“I think it is very, very, very difficult to predict or project how much time this regime has,” Hof said.
Hof fended off calls by lawmakers to provide military support to the Syrian opposition, saying it is not yet unified and needs to gain the support of frightened minorities convinced by Assad that their rights won’t be respected in any new government. Promoting a violent response from heretofore peaceful demonstrators would play into Assad’s hands, he said.
Barak predicted that an eventual ouster of Assad would undermine an alliance of Israel’s enemies, including militant Islamist groups in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, backed by Iran and Syria, that have fought Israel across its northern and southern borders.
“When the Assad family falls, it will be a major blow to the radical axis led by Iran,” Barak said “It will weaken Iran, it will weaken Hezbollah and weaken the backing for Hamas, and it will deprive the Iranians of a real stronghold in the Arab world. It will strengthen Turkey, which is a natural rival to Iran’s hegemonic intentions. . . . This is something positive for Israel.”
Yaalon said that in the event that Assad was toppled, Iran and Hezbollah would “lose an asset in Damascus,” a development that would “serve our interest.”
The makeup of Syria’s society, which is more secular than those of some of its Arab neighbors, gives reason to think that a change of government in Damascus could produce “something more promising and clearly more legitimate than what we have now,” Barak said.
Yaalon said that in contrast to developments in post-revolutionary Egypt, where Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, have emerged as a dominant force in recent elections, “we do see moderate Sunni [Muslim] elements” in Syria that could come to the fore in a post-Assad government.
The upbeat assessments of the consequences of a possible end to Assad’s rule signal a departure from previous Israeli attitudes toward the Syrian leader, who was seen as a tough but predictable adversary.
In 2005, when the George W. Bush administration advocated regime change in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned against the move, arguing that Assad was “the devil we know” and that he could be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
That view shifted in subsequent years when it was discovered that Syria had cooperated with North Korea on a suspected nuclear program, and after wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza drove home the extent of Iranian and Syrian support for the groups, said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria in the 1990s.
“The Israeli view of Assad became more negative,” Rabinovich said, and now “the sense is that it won’t be a great loss if he is going.”
But a possible toppling of Assad also carries risks, Israeli officials say, and there have been suggestions from the Syrian regime that it will not go quietly. Assad and his associates have warned that instability or outside intervention in Syria could inflame the region, with consequences for Israel. In May and June, Palestinian protesters were allowed to breach the Syrian frontier on the Golan Heights and march toward Israeli lines, breaking the decades-long calm there.
“There are certain uncertainties — what will follow, what if something will happen along the border — and we are staying on alert,” Barak said.
Other officials have raised concerns that a chaotic collapse of the Assad regime, with its reported stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, could lead to a flow of arms to Hezbollah or other militant groups, similar to the smuggling of arms out of Libya after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi.
“If the result is that not only Assad is removed but the Syrian military structure disintegrates, then there’s no telling who will control what,” Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, said in an interview Tuesday with Israel Army Radio. “How he goes, and under what circumstances, is very important.”
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.