In a routine article for journalists published on Saturday, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Professor Itamar Rabinovich focused on Winston Churchill's famous distinction between “the end of the beginning” and “the beginning of the end.” Bashar al-Assad is on the seamline between the two situations. But even the world-renowned professor of Middle Eastern history was cautious about predicting how long the president would continue to fight the rebels and under what terms he would surrender.
Various experts have been monitoring the massacre in Syria that started in March 2011 and can already see the end, but the conditions for that end are still unclear. Does Assad fully understand the impact of the breakup of his government? The force of the desertions? The fact that he is promised a place in the history as the perpetrator of the biggest-ever massacre against his own people? And will he save only his own skin and his family's, or at the very least will he try to secure some sort of assurances for his allies from the Alawite and Druze sects?
The fighting has now reached the suburbs of Damascus. Some 30,000 residents fled the Syrian capital over the weekend into Lebanon. The betrayal by his guards has reached the innermost circles, and yet he keeps going, fighting like a lion, living up to his name.
Israel has not played an active role in the Syrian civil war, even though the fall of Assad would be a massive blow to its biggest enemy, Iran. A shift is now afoot. Not only because there are real fears for the future of the calm that has prevailed on the Golan Heights since 1974, as Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi explained recently, but because of the future of the chemical weapons and missiles that Syria has stockpiled.
Several well-respected Internet sites have been producing considerable information on the location of Syria's chemical weapons and the quantities the regime has stockpiled. This is apparently what Damascus considered necessary to maintain the balance of power with Israel. Syria has advanced chemical weapons in large quantities, as well as long-range missiles given it by Iran. There are two concerns: that these weapons will be transferred to Hezbollah, and what will be done with these weapons further down the line, if the next regime in Damascus is even more violent and extreme than Assad's.
Currently, the world is solely focused on the immediate danger of the weapons getting into Hezbollah's hands. The Americans have experience in this from dealing with signs of Islamization in Pakistan. They would like to repeat what they did then, and ensure that if the chaos continues to grow, there is at least an agreement to transfer the chemical weapons to a suitable custodian. They may even be able to recruit the Russians for this.
Israeli experts believe that the rebels' announcement that they have already set up a team of specialists to deal with any chemical weapons that fall into their hands is in response to the American efforts. A reassuring announcement. But Israel isn't reassured. Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared simultaneously on the two major Friday evening news shows, and his remarks point to a casus belli, without calling it that, and hint at an Israeli strike, without committing to one. Israel will not allow the weapons to get to Hezbollah. Assad knew this and did not dare think about it, but what happens in the expected chaos when there is a change of regime?
Even if Israel has the opportunity to block the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the threat will become clear only once the character of the next regime is known.