By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could cling to power for years despite having lost overall control of his country, according to Israel's top commander on the frontier with Syria.
Major-General Yair Golan's remarks, published on Wednesday in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, reflected debate in Israel over Assad's fate, 2-1/2 years into Syria's civil war, after a U.S.-Russian agreement to force him to give up his chemical weapons.
"He will stay on for years. I don't see any force toppling him tomorrow morning - though he deserves to pass from this world, and the quicker that happens, the better," Golan said.
In separate remarks breaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public fence-straddling about the civil war next door, the Israeli ambassador to Washington said on Tuesday that Israel "always wanted Bashar Assad to go", in order to break up Syria's alliance with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
The envoy, Michael Oren, did not say if or how Israel was promoting Assad's ouster.
Golan, who heads the military's northern command, forecast the Syrian leader would weather his military and territorial deadlock with the rebels. Israel says Assad has lost control over 60 percent of the country but can hold off the rebels thanks to his superior, Russian-supplied army.
Before the Syrian insurgency, Assad was in a mostly stable standoff with his old foe Israel. Faced with possible U.S. military strikes after an August 21 poison gas attack near Damascus that Washington blamed on Assad, Damascus hinted it could lash out at the Jewish state.
Golan played down this prospect, saying Assad's army had suffered 15,000 fatalities, fired off 40 percent to 50 percent of its long-range missiles and seen some of its anti-aircraft batteries overrun by the insurgents.
"He can cause us damage, he can harass us greatly, but he cannot today wage a serious ground campaign against the State of Israel," Golan said.
Interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, ambassador Oren described Assad's defeat as welcome even if it were at the hands of al Qaeda-linked rebels more hostile to the Jewish state.
Agreeing, Golan warned against exaggerating the threat from the radical Sunni jihadis who Israel estimates make up around one in 10 of those fighting Assad - an Allawite who is closer to the rival Shi'ite Islam of Iran and Hezbollah.
"The Global Jihad is a bad enemy, but it is a relatively primitive enemy that does not enjoy the backing of a regional power," Golan said, using Israel's term for al Qaeda affiliates.
"The Syrian enemy, with Hezbollah and of course with a regional power like Iran in the background, is a far more dangerous enemy than elements of the Global Jihad."
Over the past year, Israel has struck inside Syria at least three times to prevent what security sources described as the transfer of advanced weaponry from Assad to Hezbollah, against which the Israelis fought an inconclusive 2006 war in Lebanon.
Golan said Hezbollah sought precision ground-to-ground rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles from Syria in return for its guerrillas helping Assad battle the rebels, but "as far as we can tell" it did not want his chemical weapons.
The United States and Russia struck a deal on September 14 under which Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal. The agreement averted the immediate threat of U.S. strikes on Syria and was cautiously welcomed by Netanyahu.
Golan said military action would have a limited value as it would be impossible to know exactly how many civilians might be harmed or how much of the chemical stockpiles had been destroyed.
"So if this deal ends up successful, and brings about a dismantling of the chemical weapons, it's an achievement."
(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Trevelyan)