Israeli Envoy Sees Radicals Risk Preferable to Assad

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be a boon to Israel and the Mideast, even if radical Islamists try to fill the vacuum left by his departure.

“There’s the possibility that you’ll have Sunni extremist elements who will try to come to the fore,” Oren said yesterday in Washington. “Our opinion is that any situation would be better than the current situation” in which the Syrian regime has a strategic alliance with Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Muslim terrorist group Hezbollah, he said.

U.S. officials repeatedly have expressed concern about jihadi elements within the Syrian opposition and have said the U.S. is unwilling to send arms to opposition forces for that reason. The U.S. doesn’t want to help radical elements who may seek power in post-Assad Syria or who may use weapons acquired in Syria to attack U.S, Israeli or other targets in the region and beyond.

Highlighting that issue, the U.S. State Department yesterday designated the al-Nusra Front, one of the most successful Syrian rebel militias, a terrorist organization. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said al-Nusra “is simply a renamed al-Qaeda in Iraq trying to make inroads into Syria.”

Oren, speaking to reporters at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, said that, since he became ambassador in 2009 -- before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 -- he was briefing White House officials on the Israeli government view that Assad had formed an “inextricable strategic alliance with Iran and with Hezbollah,” and that his rule was destabilizing and untenable.

‘Ruthless and Reckless’

Oren, who’s also a Middle East historian, said Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, “was ruthless, but somehow predictable, somehow responsible,” while his son is “ruthless and reckless.”

The younger Assad, Oren said, allied Syria with Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel; pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons program; provided a headquarters for terrorist groups such as Hamas, and armed Hezbollah with between 60,000 and 70,000 rockets.

Assad’s father also allied with Iran in supporting and arming Hezbollah and also hosted numerous Palestinian terrorist groups.

The younger Assad’s “departure would be in Israel’s interest, in the interest of the region,” Oren said, because it “would deal a tremendous blow to Iran and to Hezbollah at the same time.”

He said Israel is monitoring the status of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons and is concerned that Hezbollah might obtain some of them. Sharing chemical weapons with Hezbollah “would be a game changer, and we would not remain passive,” he warned.

Israel’s Hope

Israel’s hope is for the speedy emergence of a democratic, stable and peaceful Syria, he said.

Asked whether Iranian arms are making their way through Egypt to terrorist groups in Gaza following a cease-fire to hostilities between Israel and Hamas last month, Oren said Egypt is the key to stopping smuggling through land routes into Gaza.

There is “the expectation” that Egypt will hold to its pledge to stop the arms transfers, he said, and “we are monitoring it very closely.”

Asked about the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, Oren dismissed the notion that the prime minister supported Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Romney, who met with Netanyahu during a campaign trip to Israel, worked with Netanyahu in the late 1970s at the Boston Consulting Group.

Netanyahu “went to extraordinary lengths not to be dragged into the U.S. political elections,” Oren said.

Obama and Netanyahu have met nine times, and Oren was present at all the meetings, which he described as “friendly, at times very funny, and very constructive and open.”

“The areas of our agreements vastly, vastly outweigh and overshadow any disagreements we may have had,” Oren said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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