Israel braces for refugees after Syrian collapse
JERUSALEM — Israel’s military chief said on Tuesday that Jerusalem was preparing for a potential influx of refugees into the Golan Heights from Syria with the demise of the government of President Bashar Assad, which he said was inevitable.
Addressing a closed meeting of the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said that Israel was preparing to absorb the refugees in a buffer zone between Syria and the Golan, a strategic area controlled by Israel. The plans included defensive measures and humanitarian assistance for those in flight, including thousands from the ruling Alawite sect, the small minority to which Assad belongs.
“I am not sure all the Alawites will run toward Israel,” Gantz was quoted as saying, but he said he could not rule out the possibility that some would. Gantz added that Assad could not continue to rule Syria, but did not specify how much longer he thought the Assad government could survive.
Israel has tried to keep a low profile and not take sides in the struggle under way in Syria, a country that is hostile to Israel, but officials here have been increasingly open in their assessment that the Assad government is in dire straits.
The defense minister, Ehud Barak, told the same parliamentary committee on Jan. 2 that the Assad family’s prospects were worsening. “Though it is difficult to put an exact date on when the regime will fall, the trend is clear and every day that passes brings the regime closer to its end,” Barak said, according to a statement from his office.
He added: “The cracks in the Syrian leadership are deepening, the economic situation is deteriorating and the military is having a hard time dealing with the opposition and the army deserters.”
Despite the uncertainty about who will take over in Syria in the event of a collapse of the Assad government, and the ascendancy of Islamic parties in other countries in the region, many Israeli officials and analysts say they would not shed any tears over Assad’s demise. Instead, Israel sees a potential benefit, saying that the collapse of his government would deal a severe blow to the “radical axis,” including enemies such as Iran, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah organization and Palestinian militant groups like Hamas.
Though Syria has mostly maintained quiet along its frontier with Israel for more than 30 years, it has forged an alliance with Iran and provided vital support to Hezbollah.