REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- About the time Syrian President Bashar Assad was delivering a speech on Tuesday declaring that his government would deploy an "iron fist" against dissent, Israeli officials were reviewing scenarios related to the conflict and its effect on Israel.
Benny Gantz, Israel's chief of staff, briefed the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs committee on the range of challenges facing Israel, among them the ongoing violent upheaval in Syria, its northern neighbor. Gantz said Assad "cannot continue holding onto power" and that Syrian leader's troubles could cause Assad's regime to seek military confrontation with Israel, although not necessarily in the short term.
Israeli officials have said for many weeks that Assad's rule is unlikely to survive. How this may unfold is hard to predict. But Gantz noted Israel may find members of the Assad family's Alawite religious sect, which makes up a little more than 10% of Syria's population, fleeing feared retribution.
"The day Assad's regime falls, it will be expected to hurt the Alawite sect," he said. "We are preparing to take in Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights."
Israel may not be the obvious safe haven for Alawites, noted Uzi Rabi, head of Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University. But followers of the Shiite Muslim off-shoot might not be comfortable in Sunni countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, he told Israeli radio.
Assad's downfall "will widen the cracks of the civil war already raging in Syria, and Alawites will flee in all directions for fear of Sunni reprisal for their many years of supporting the Assad regime," Rabi said, noting that in this context, Syrians seeking refuge in Israel was not an impossible scenario.
The subject came up several months ago, when the Israeli army was completing a new range of barriers along its border with Syria, including minefields, deep ditches, barbed wire fences and a revamping of the Quneitra crossing.
The work was carried out after civilians from Syria and Lebanon breached the border with Israel last May as part of popular protests and clashed with Israeli troops, leaving a dozen people dead. But the construction also was done with an eye on the possible flood of Syrian refugees seeking asylum from the regime, as has already happened along Syria's border with Turkey.
Israel has a small Alawite community: about 2,200 residents of the village of Ghajar. The Syrian village changed hands when Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967, gaining control of Ghajar and several other villages, the rest of them populated by Druze. Even without the Alawite component, Ghajar's situation is complicated even by Middle Eastern standards, facing competing claims by Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad demonstrate in central Damascus on Friday. Israeli officials are preparing for the possibility that members of the Alawite sect, a minority that includes the Assad family, might seek refuge in Israel if the Syrian leader is driven from power. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency