“Israel opened the door for [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad to get out of his international isolation.”
These were the words of then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman during a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington in January 2010.
He is now the political advisor to the United Nations secretary-general.
Feltman was not the average U.S. diplomat. Before Hillary Clinton appointed him deputy assistant secretary of state in 2009, he had served at various posts across the Middle East, the last of which was that of U.S. ambassador to Lebanon.
Feltman had barely arrived in Beirut when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February of 2005.
So began one of Lebanon’s most memorable popular revolts, which forced al-Assad to withdraw his troops from Lebanon two months later. Al-Assad’s humiliation in Lebanon was coupled with a mounting international isolation engineered by Washington.
Feltman’s active role in supporting the Lebanese uprising in 2005 made al-Assad and his Lebanese allies -- mainly Hezbollah -- launch a vilification campaign against the U.S. diplomat.
Shortly before Feltman was replaced in Beirut, a bomb narrowly missed a convoy near the U.S. embassy. Many believed the bombing either targeted Feltman himself or was a message from al-Assad and Hezbollah to Washington.
By 2009, Feltman had become the top U.S. diplomat in terms of Middle Eastern affairs. With former President Barack Obama endorsing an “engage al-Assad” policy, Feltman -- who had been leading the international effort in support of Lebanese democracy -- now found himself visiting Damascus and meeting al-Assad.
When Feltman said Israel had “opened the door for al-Assad to get out of his international isolation,” he knew what he was talking about.
In 2006, al-Assad launched a campaign in Washington aimed at “coming back in from the cold”.
His then ambassador to the U.S., Imad Mustafa, connected with Syrian Jews in a bid to win the support of the influential Jewish-American community.
Before anyone knew it, al-Assad’s officials were holding “peace talks” with their Israeli counterparts -- a move Feltman believed would allow al-Assad to return to the international fold.
Mustafa eventually succeeded in organizing a trip to Damascus for U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Foreign Policy Committee Chairman John Kerry, who found in al-Assad a partner.
With Obama, Kerry and Obama’s assistants in place -- including al-Assad’s good friend, Robert Malley, who would later become the top U.S. National Security Council official on the Middle East -- and because Israel had shown readiness to engage al-Assad, Washington was ready to embrace the Syrian president.
At first sight, Israel’s protection of al-Assad looks counterintuitive.
After all, he is the man who not only supports Israel’s mortal enemy, Hezbollah, but who also -- in 2006 -- opened his military depots to the Lebanese group so that the latter might use Syrian missiles in its conflict with Israel.
Until 2011, the Israeli position had been supportive of democracy across the Middle East: In Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and in Iran. The Israeli position was in sync with that of former U.S. President George Bush and his hawkish neocons.
Feltman’s statement about Israel saving al-Assad should have been an eye-opener for anyone who thought Israel was interested in seeing the democratization of the Arab world.
In 2011, Israel -- and most of its friends in Washington -- took a firm stance against the “Arab Spring” uprisings that were roiling the region at the time and openly supported former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Later, Israel would be among the staunchest advocates of the military coup in Egypt that brought General Abdel-Fattah Sissi to power in Cairo.
To be fair, a few of Israel’s friends in Washington proved that -- unlike Tel Aviv -- their interest in spreading democracy in the Arab world was genuine.
For instance, former top Bush official on the Middle East, Eliot Abrams, supported Egypt’s uprising throughout, regardless of the Israeli position.
Abrams was the second speaker at the Hudson Institute in 2010 when Feltman accused Israel of saving al-Assad.
It seems Israel is not interested in Arab or Iranian democracy, after all. Perhaps Israel wants to see “change” only in countries where it foes rule.
As such, Israel advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, supported Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah uprising in 2005, raised hell against Palestinians to force the election of Mahmoud Abbas and undermine Yasser Arafat, but then cared little when Palestinians stopped holding elections thereafter.
In 2009, Israel’s friends in Washington trashed Obama for not supporting Iran’s “Green Revolution”.
But aside from Saddam, Hezbollah, Arafat and Iran, Israel does not seem particularly keen on the spread of democracy among the Arabs and Iranians.
Israel only wants al-Assad weakened enough so he cannot support Hezbollah but not so weak that he collapses -- which brings us to the Israeli position on the Syrian conflict since 2011.
Israel appreciates the al-Assad family, the late Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor, Bashar.
The al-Assads might not be fans of Israel, but they know their limits. Between 1974 and 2011, the al-Assad family gave Israel peace of mind when it came to the stability of the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel not only occupies but has officially annexed.
Starting in 1996, al-Assad guaranteed that the war between Israel and Hezbollah would not turn into a full scale confrontation.
In 1993 and 1996, as the situation between Israel and Hezbollah escalated, al-Assad gave Israel a way out by restoring a tentative truce.
Even though al-Assad makes trouble from time to time, Israel can tolerate his behavior, and actually prefers him as the “evil they know” to an alternative -- like the Islamists -- that they do not.
Hence, when the Syrians -- moderate and radical Islamists -- took on al-Assad to topple him, Israel wanted the Syrian president to stay, but could do little to save him.
Unfortunately for Israel, its archenemies -- Iran and Hezbollah -- stepped in to save al-Assad, and it did not take long before the Syrian president became militarily dependent on Iran for his survival.
As al-Assad’s grip on his southern border with Israel weakened, Iran and Hezbollah tried to build an infrastructure by which they could threaten Israel.
This was seen as an alternative to the Lebanese front with Israel -- a front that had become unviable due to the prohibitively high cost that Israel inflicted, and will inflict again in case of war, on Hezbollah’s Shia supporters in Lebanon.
Hence, Israel has carried out several airstrikes recently against Hezbollah troop concentrations and arms shipments destined for southern Syria.
With Russia entering the Syria conflict in September of 2015, not only al-Assad’s chances of survival improved -- much to Israel’s satisfaction -- but Moscow offered an alternative to al-Assad’s dependence on Iran.
So, for the first time since 2011, Israel this month explained the goal of its airstrikes inside Syrian territory: to keep Iran and its militias far from Israel’s border.
And with the replacement of the Iran-friendly Obama administration with that of the Iran-hating Donald Trump, Israel might have found an opportunity to help eject Iran and Hezbollah from Syria, thus transforming al-Assad into a Russian satellite -- a move Moscow would welcome.
Along these lines, and for the first time since 2011, Israel improved its ability to target Iranian forces inside Syria as far as Palmyra to the northeast of Damascus.
Because Iran realizes Israel is changing the rules of the game, it responded with an al-Assad missile at Israel, perhaps as a warning to the Israelis that ejecting Iran from Syria would not be easy. The same week, Iran downed an Israel drone that had been flying over southern Syria.
Will Israel pursue a policy of trying to drive a wedge between al-Assad and Iran, thus driving the Syrian president closer to Russia and ensuring he is not replaced by Sunni or Shia Islamists?
We will have to wait and see.
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