From ABC (Australia) "The World Today" transcript, 27 February 2014:
ELEANOR HALL: To Syria and overnight the Assad government claimed victory in an ambush in the eastern outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
The state news agency says government forces killed more than 170 Islamist fighters.
But an Israeli-based analyst with the Washington Institute, Ehud Yaari, says Assad will not win this three year long civil war.
He says Israel is quietly increasing its role in the conflict and that the Netanyahu government has now decided that Assad must go.
Ehud Yaari is in Sydney today as a guest of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council and when he joined me in the World Today studio this morning I asked him about the significance of the latest fighting in Damascus.
EHUD YAARI: I'll be very blunt, there is no way president Assad can win this war. He is maintaining power and some control over about 35, 40 per cent of the country but there is no way he can win because his army is overstretched, exhausted.[...] The airlift from Russia and Iran cannot compensate for it.
If it was not hundreds and hundreds of Iranian military advisors and 6,000 fighters from Hezbollah, he would lose the main artery, the main highway of Syria, which is the M5, and control of the M5 is basically the crucial issue in this civil war.
ELEANOR HALL: That's a big if though, isn't it? I mean the support from Iran is significant and it's not likely to diminish.
EHUD YAARI: No, it's very significant support. If it was not for the Iranians and their proxy Hezbollah, he would not be in power today however the Syrian army or what remains of the Syrian army, which is less than a third of what it used to be, is unable to mount any significant counter offensive.
What they are able to do is have such an ambush somewhere around Damascus, bomb neighbourhoods, cities, townlets but they cannot take territory because they don't have enough forces.
ELEANOR HALL: And yet this very destructive war drags on. Now officially Israel has kept its distance from this conflict and we've actually had an Israeli military analyst on this program saying that in purely strategic terms it suits Israel to have the various Islamist groups fighting on Syrian soil rather than eyeing Israel but you suggest this is changing. Why?
EHUD YAARI: Yes, I think I differ with my countryman in his assessment. I'll put it again bluntly if I may, we'd prefer the devil we don't know in Syria, even if it is the Islamists, to the devil we know, because the devil we know, Assad, was going for nuclear weapons. He is the one who provided Hezbollah with all the missiles that they've firing against Israel.
The second point is that Israel is very interested to prevent the flow of the two factions, the two rival factions of al Qaeda, from north Syria down to the south and Hezbollah Israel is mounting an assistance program, a very considerable one so that Al Qaeda will not become our next door neighbour.
ELEANOR HALL: So how big a role then is Israel currently playing and how has that shifted in recent months?
EHUD YAARI: Well, you know that Israel has so far treated 700 wounded rebels in Israeli hospitals. At Golan Heights we are providing heaters, blankets, fuel, medication, food to the villagers and townlets east of our frontier and you would not be wrong to assume that there is a very good system of communications and coordination between Israel and the people on the other side.
Now to what extent Israel is aiding rebels in the south beyond civilian humanitarian aid, that's something that has not been publicised so far.
ELEANOR HALL: What's your speculation about that?
EHUD YAARI: My speculation is that Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent al Qaeda from entrenching itself close to our border.
ELEANOR HALL: Where do you see Israel's role expanding either officially or unofficially?
EHUD YAARI: Well, although we don't want Israel to get involved in the civil war, we are holding a huge magnifying glass over Syria and we are waiting for president Obama to make up his mind whether he is going to support the good rebels, let's call them, the non-Islamists, otherwise this bloody war in Syria is just one huge pond of blood will continue probably for years.
ELEANOR HALL: But the role of the US is that critical?
EHUD YAARI: It is critical because everybody in the region, the Arabs, Israel quietly, they are all saying to Obama here in Syria you cannot lead from behind. So they're saying to Obama we will all follow but you have to take the lead. He's taking his time.
ELEANOR HALL: Now Israel is not part of the Geneva process working to find a negotiated solution in the Syrian conflict...
EHUD YAARI: A mistake by the Israeli government not to insist that we attend the meetings. We are an immediate neighbour of Syria. I think the Israeli government has committed a major mistake by not insisting on being there.
ELEANOR HALL: Do you think that the Israeli government will now insist on being involved?
EHUD YAARI: Well, this is what I am [privately] telling the prime minister but he doesn't always listen to me.
ELEANOR HALL: And if Israel were to become more involved in the conflict both in the negotiations with other nations in that forum and also potentially militarily, what difference can Israel make?
EHUD YAARI: I think the decision of the civil war will take place from the south. A good push by the rebels, properly supported, would carry the day.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that the devil you don't know is the one that you'd prefer but what are the risks in trusting the rebels?
EHUD YAARI: Major risks. We have in Syria something around 50,000 fighters belonging to the two rival factions of al Qaeda so we are looking at the real danger that al Qaeda will be able to take at least parts of Syria.
We in Israel and our friends in Jordan are not interested in seeing al Qaeda entrenching themselves close to our borders [...]so you should expect that both Jordon, King Abdullah and Israel, Mr Netanyahu are taking every possible measure to prevent al Qaeda from flowing down south.
ELEANOR HALL: Does every possible measure though for prime minister Netanyahu include potentially keeping Assad there?
EHUD YAARI: No, that's not an option. I think the decision in Israel has been taken quietly. We are not making, the Israeli government doesn't make statements about the civil war in Syria but the Israeli position, the strategic logic of the Israeli position is that we would like to see Assad out...
ELEANOR HALL: And that's Israeli-based analyst with the Washington Institute Ehud Yaari.
And you can listen to the extended interview with him on our website ... where he talks more broadly about the region, including Egypt and the resignation en masse of the interim government there this week.