Israel Shifts on Assad, Openly Advocates Ouster

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -

Israel wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toppled, its ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday, in a shift from its non-committal public stance on its neighbor’s civil war.

Even Assad’s defeat by al-Qaida-aligned rebels would be preferable to Damascus’s current alliance with Iran, Ambassador Michael Oren said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

Though old enemies, a stable stand-off has endured between the two countries during Assad’s rule and at times Israel had pursued peace talks with him in hope of divorcing Syria from Tehran and Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon.

Some Israeli officials now worry that radical Sunni Islamist insurgents fighting Assad will eventually turn their guns on Israel.

But with Assad under U.S.-led condemnation for his forces’ alleged chemical attack on a rebel district of Damascus on Aug. 21, Oren said Israel’s message was that he must go.

“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” Oren said in the interview, excerpted on Tuesday before its full publication on Friday.

Assad’s overthrow would also weaken the alliance with Iran and Hizbullah, Oren said.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” he said.

Oren said that other anti-Assad rebels were less radical than the Islamists.

Israel believes around one in 10 Syrian rebels are Sunni militants sworn to its destruction. Assad’s Alawite sect is closer to the rival Shiite Islam of Iran and Hizbullah.