Maybe Assad thought he could get away with a brutal crackdown on his own people. After all, his father, the equally authoritarian Hafez al-Assad, did the same thing years earlier in the city of Hama, murdering thousands of innocent Syrians unhappy with his rule, and the world barely flinched.
Maybe he thought the Western powers, after supporting the rebels in a protracted civil war in Libya, would have no stomach for another regime change mission in the same region.
Or maybe he thought his people would simply give up after facing gunfire from his modern day storm troopers.
If so, Assad, who was wrong on all three counts, never anticipated the global response his policies have spawned:
• Defecting Syrian soldiers are organizing into a so-called “Free Syrian Army,” going so far as to fire rocket-propelled grenades at the ruling Baath Party offices in the capital, Damascus.
• The Arab League has frozen Syrian assets and imposed a travel ban on the country. This after the League, on Nov. 24, called on Syria to admit 500 international observers within 24 hours to monitor the human rights situation or face economic sanctions.
• Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been moving his country closer to the Arab and Iranian spheres of influence and further from its historic ties to Israel, just called on Assad to resign.
With such significant developments, we feel safe in saying it’s not a question of if the Assad regime falls, but when.
The question for our readers is, what does this mean for Israel?
The answer will take years to determine. After all, no one knows who or what will follow Assad.
But this much is clear: The Golan Heights, long considered a possible concession Israel could make to Syria in return for peace on its northern border, is now, and likely for good, a part of Israel.
Many Israel observers, including some whose columns have appeared in this paper, have preached bold peace talks, which would include Syria, and a deal on a full or partial Israeli withdrawal from Golan.
But to deal a strategic piece of ground, one from which Syrian soldiers once fired indiscriminately upon Israeli settlers farming their Galilean kibbutzim prior to 1967, to such an unstable country, would fly in the face of Israel’s national security.
Any thoughts that Golan could be safely ceded to Syria were dashed on May 15, when a mob of hundreds of Palestinians rushed the Syrian-Israeli border on Nakba (Catastrophe) Day — Israel’s Independence Day to us. Assad, in a transparent attempt to divert world attention from his troubles at home, orchestrated this incident, according to news reports.
Had Golan been ceded in an earlier deal, that incident would have happened in the Galilee instead, and the consequences would have been much more dire, possibly even inspiring some Israeli Arabs to join the fray.
As we said earlier, no one knows who or what will follow Assad, but we have seen increasingly anti-Israel governments take over — or, in some cases, poised to take over — in Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. There’s no reason to believe Syria will be any different. And that is why at long last Golan must be taken off the table.
We hope someday a pro-peace government does come to power in Syria. If that happens, we believe Israel will again be a partner for peace, regardless of which party is in power in Jerusalem.
But Golan should not be a price for that peace. That diplomatic ship has sailed. The region is part of Israel, and that fact must be recognized.