Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz
Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan HalutzFlash 90

Former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has said that Israel prefers the Assad regime to an alternative that would see Al Qaeda-style Islamists taking control of Syria. 

"The Syrian regime is killing its citizens every day," he acknowledged, "but we have to recognize that the opposition in Syria is made up primarily of Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda."

"The question 'what is better for Israel?' is an important question, because we need to ask ourselves if we want to swap the bad Syrian regime we know for a very bad regime that we don't know," he said, according to Israeli daily Maariv.

The former IDF head added that Israel was not alone in that assessment either.

"At the moment it looks like even in the rest of the world, they understand that they cannot replace the Assad regime as long as they don’t know who will replace it. Right now it looks like the alternative is forces that will endanger the stability of the region."

Halutz is the latest Israeli figure to weigh in to the debate over what the "best" - or at least, the least bad - outcome would be for Israel in the Syrian civil war, which will soon enter into its third year.

The choice is hardly ideal. The rapidly increasing influence of Sunni Islamism among the rebel movement - including Al Qaeda-linked groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and independent Salafi brigades - has effectively sidelined the largely secular Free Syrian Army, and all but guaranteed that a post-rebel-victory Syria would be an Islamist haven, if not an entirely Islamic state.

Indeed, a recent groundbreaking meeting between western diplomats and representatives of the opposition's largest Islamist faction - the Syrian Islamic Front - indicates a tacit admission by western powers that the momentum among rebel forces on the ground lies with Islamist factions opposed to western democratic ideals.

But the alternative is not much better for the Jewish state.

A victory for Assad would not only preserve the "belt" of Iranian influence in the region - extending from Iran, through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon - but provide an important moral and strategic victory for Tehran. Moreover, the fact that the Islamic Republic has invested so much, and played such a fundamental role in preserving Assad's rule has pulled Damascus even further into Iran's orbit, turning the Syrian government from staunch ally to an effective proxy. 

Furthermore, scores of Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist militias - Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese - are currently fighting alongside the Syrian army, providing crucial support to Syria's badly-overstretched conventional armed forces. Those groups, which include Hezbollah, have established bases inside Syria and are likely to maintain a long-term presence in the event of an Assad victory, presenting Israel with a very real threat of Islamist terrorism - though of the Shia rather than Sunni variety - even without Al Qaeda.