Israel prepares to take in Syrians if al-Assad falls

Israeli soldiers patrol along the border fence between the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria on May 20, 2011.

Story highlights

  • Alawites will be allowed to settle in Golan Heights, military chief says
  • The Golan is regarded internationally as occupied territory despite Israel's control
  • Taking in people from neighboring Arab counties deviates from Israeli policy
In an "unprecedented" reaction to internal Arab affairs, an Israeli official said the country is getting ready to absorb fleeing Syrian Alawites if the Bashar al-Assad regime falls.
Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz told members of a Knesset committee that Alawites would be permitted to settle in Golan Heights, a spokesman for Knesset member Avi Dichter told CNN.
The Golan is regarded internationally as occupied territory despite Israeli governmental control. It is home to 41,000 residents -- Jewish settlers, Druze and Alawites themselves. Israel seized the territory from Syria during the 1967 Israel-Arab war, and it was eventually annexed.
The remark reflects the Israeli military calculus that the embattled al-Assad regime is doomed and will soon disintegrate. The regime is dominated by Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sunnis represent the most populous religious group in the country and the heart of the opposition against the regime.
For this reason, Israel believes Alawites are most likely to flee if a new government takes over, and many will head for the Golan. So, Israeli authorities want to prepare for that eventuality.
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Jonathan Spyer at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, said Defense Minister Ehud Barak also predicted late last year, to the same parliamentary panel, the foreign affairs and defense committee, that the fall of the Syrian government is imminent. Within weeks, he said.
Spyer said the notion of taking in uprooted people from a neighboring Arab country is a drastic deviation to conventional Israeli policy, which traditionally calls for Israel not to get directly involved in such situations. He said it's the "first time Israel ever said anything of this kind."
"It's quite strange to be honest with you in terms of Israel's more usual style, which is we don't get involved in the affairs of neighboring Arab countries," Spyer said.
Spyer said he doesn't know on what Israel is basing its evidence. He said information he and other civilian researchers have culled indicates that the assessments are "very premature"
"These latest statements seem to factor in this sense, which is the Israeli military intelligence assessment that this regime is clearly on its last leg," Spyer said. "Israeli talk of needing to look immediately at what's going to happen when Assad falls very soon is somewhat premature unless they know something that the rest of don't -- which is possible."