Syrian situation continues to escalate
Aug 10, 2011
August 10, 2011
Number 08/11 #03
The situation in Syria continues to worsen with violent government efforts to suppress protests continuing in Hama, Dor El-Zoir, and other towns and increasingly blunt denunciations of the Damascus regime coming from many quarters, including tough remarks from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and Al-Azhar University, the most senior Sunni Muslim religious voice in the world, now speaking out.
First, some up to date analysis and reporting on the situation in Syria from the Strategy Page, a useful resource on military and strategic issues. This piece highlights the extent of both the recent escalation in the violence within Syria, and the isolation of Syria from the Sunni Arab world as denunciations mount. The piece goes on to note that the “cold war” between the Sunni states and the Iranian-led bloc is affecting attitudes toward the Syrian situation, and to predict that, if not military action, indirect Arab support for the Syrian rebels may be in the cards if the struggle continues to go on. For this useful summary of the strategic realities in Syria, CLICK HERE. Also emphasising the importance of the strategic context of the Syrian revolution in terms of the conflict between the radical Iran-Syrian axis and the Sunni states is American scholar Michael Ledeen.
Next up is Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli scholar always worth reading, who seeks to dispel any notion that the conflict in Syria is anywhere near over or that the Assad regime is likely to call it a day anytime soon. Describing the conflict as “The irresistible force of the uprising [having] met with the immovable object of the Assad regime”, he foresees only intensification of the fighting, and it taking on an increasingly sectarian character. He gauges the regime as having an even chance of surviving and views outside actors as likely to have relatively little effect on the outcome,given current international political realities. For Spyer’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. A somewhat different analysis comes from David Gardner of the Financial Times, whose take-out from surveying the current Syrian violence is that the Assad regime cannot ultimately survive.
Finally, we offer a detailed look at the Syrian unrest from an Israeli perspective as put forward by one of Israel’s leading academic expert on Syria, Dr. Eyal Zisser. Zisser knowledgeably reviews both the regional and internal Syrian state of play vis-a-vis the revolution, but interestingly, also explores the repercussion for Israel of a potential overthrow of the regime. He predicts that a successor Syrian regime could potentially weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, end Syria’s nuclear quest, be more flexible in negotiations regarding the Golan Heights, and turn Syria’s orientation away from Iran and towards the West. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Reports that Syria’s outgoing defence minister Ali Habib, who was sacked on Monday, was found dead in his home on Tuesday. There was extensive commentary on the significance of this report if true, but it now seems it was incorrect, according to this story.
- More reports on regime torture and other atrocities from Syrian refugees in Jordan.
- The Syrian opposition requests petroleum sanctions against the regime.
- Palestinian-American writer Ray Hanania takes Arab opinion to task for caring about Palestinians killed by Israelis, but not about Syrians killed by their own government.
- Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh predicts an Islamist future for Egypt. Also warning of this likelihood is Barry Rubin.
- 150 Italian MPs sign a petition against the planned unilateral UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
- Top counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt writes about Hezbollah’s extensive use of criminal enterprises to finance its activities.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s new daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- More on increasing Arab pressure on the Syrian regime – here and here.
- A post on the potential pitfalls associated with the trial of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
- A detailed look at Israeli commentary regarding the still-swelling “tent” protest movement.
- A post on what happens to Palestinian journalists who refuse to shape their reporting to the Palestinian Authority line.
- A post on an Indonesian backlash against Saudi-style Wahhabist Islam.
August 9, 2011
In the last few days, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (the wealthiest Arab oil states) and Turkey have all called on Syria to stop the violence against its own people. Ambassadors have been withdrawn and sanctions threatened. But military intervention has been ruled out, even just supplying the rebels with weapons or equipment. This may change, as Syria seems determined to crush the demonstrators no matter what. In this the government is aided by its long-time patron; Iran. But it’s the Iran connection that may spur other Arab nations into action. Iran is increasingly at war with the Sunni Arab states, Even Iraq, which has (like Iran) a Shia majority, would like to see a new government in Syria. That current one, despite being run by a Shia (a minority in Syria) dictatorship, supported Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists in Iraq, and that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Shia civilians. While Iran is pulling all its strings to keep Iraq from aiding the Syrian reformers, Iraqi popular opinion is decidedly behind the protestors. Syria shares a long border with Jordan and Iraq, and this could provide a conduit for some kind of aid. For the moment, the protestors have kept coming out, despite the growing number of them getting killed (over 2,000) or arrested (over 20,000). If the protestors show signs of faltering, the Arab world will be faced with the choice of getting more involved or suffering yet another defeat at the hands of the increasingly aggressive Iranians.
The last week has been the bloodiest yet since the widespread pro-reform demonstrations began five months ago. In an effort to defeat the reformers once and for all, the government security forces were ordered to shoot-on-sight any anti-government activity. This included funerals of those killed by government forces, as these gatherings often led to anti-government chants and further demonstrations. As a result, the past week has seen over a thousand civilian casualties (and dozens among the security forces, as an increasing number of demonstrators shoot back). There have been at least 300 dead in the last week, and cities like Hama have been under siege (electricity, telephones and Internet shut off) for ten days now. Troops, using tank guns, constantly fire on neighborhoods considered disloyal. This has left large parts of Hama in ruins. The government has created a desert and called it peace, but the demonstrations continue despite that.
Even as state controlled media show pictures of devastated Hama, and declare unrest suppressed, demonstrations continue throughout the country. The Syrian government has lost the trust of other Arab governments, who are now openly criticizing the violence in Syria. Until recently, the Assad government had assured the other Arab states that the unrest in Syria would be handled peacefully and soon. Neither has happened, and the Arab states, Turkey and the West have all turned on the Assads. Economic sanctions are being imposed. Wealthy Syrians are moving their money out of the country and the economy is shutting down, causing more misery and anti-government anger. The other Arab states are urging the Assads to immediately implement serious reforms (real democracy). This means that the Assads would have to flee the country, along with many of their closest (and wealthiest) allies. Exile is now becoming a more attractive option for the Assads, but the prospect of prosecution for “crimes against humanity” may limit the “reform and run” option. The cure for that is a negotiated amnesty. But the Assads have not accepted that option, yet.
The Assad’s have another option. If Syria cut all ties with Iran, many other Arab nations would quickly move to help keep the Assad dictatorship in power. Since the 1980s, Syria has been an ally of Iran, mainly to counter the threat from Iraq. There is no longer a need for the Iranian protection from Iraq, because the cause of the Syrian-Iraq animosity is gone. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi Baath Party was banned. The Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baath Party underwent a bitter split in the 1960s, and the two countries were hostile to each other after that. The Syrian Baath party is no longer a secular socialist political movement, but rather the political front for the Assad dictatorship. The Assad’s now have a choice of who they prefer as their main ally, Iran or the rest of the Arab world. This is complicated by religion. The Assads are part of the Shia minority in Syria, and Iran is the largest Shia nation in the world. But most (over 80 percent) of Moslems are Sunni, and Saudi Arabia leads that faction. The Assad’s could always flee to exile in Iran, but that would be difficult now that flying into Iran is restricted. The Assad’s could flee by ship, but for the moment the Assad’s aren’t thinking of flight, but rather continued fight.
Assad’s security forces are being accused to extending their operations overseas. Syrians living in the West complain of getting threats from Syrian security officials, in an effort to stop Syrian expatriates from openly supporting (usually via the Internet) the demonstrators in Syria.
So far, over 2,000 civilians have died in five months of violence. The government claims 400 soldiers and police have also died, but that probably includes many killed for deserting or joining the demonstrators. The pro-reform groups now admit that there are some armed Islamic radical groups attacking troops and police, and are responsible for most of those 400 dead. But now there are more demonstrators who are getting weapons and becoming armed rebels.
August 7, 2011: Troops attacked Sunni tribal militias on the Iraqi border area. There was no open warfare, as the army rolls in with tanks and other armored vehicles, while all the Sunni tribesmen have are rifles and pistols. But these tribes have kinsmen just across the border in Iraq, where more destructive arms (especially RPG anti-tank rocket launchers) are easily available. These weapons are believed to be already moving across the border.
August 5, 2011: State television showed video of the destruction in Hama, and declared the anti-government activity there at an end. But it wasn’t, and word got out (despite the cut telephone and Internet access). The government cannot just declare the rebellion over, not while the protests spread and grow stronger.
The United States government urged all American citizens in Syria to get out, now.
August 4, 2011: The government made a major effort to suppress anti-government activity in Hama. Troops were ordered to fire on any demonstrations, and by the end of the day there were nearly 500 dead and wounded civilians. But the demonstrations continued.
All members of the UN Security Council (including long-time Assad ally Russia) have joined to condemn Syria for the anti-protestor violence.
August 3, 2011: The EU (European Union) has expanded travel bans and asset freezes for Syrian officials. Those believed most responsible for the current violence in Syrian are having these individual sanctions applied to them.
Syrian troops are rampaging through the city of Hama for the third day. Tanks fire their main guns into suspect neighborhoods, and machine-guns are fired at groups of civilians who might be anti-government demonstrators.
August 2, 2011: Turkey has blocked the shipment of weapons from Iran to Syria. Flying this stuff, via Turkey, has long been the quickest way to move Iranian weapons into Syria. This won’t stop Iran, even though Arab nations will impose similar restrictions, but it will restrict the volume of shipments and cause delays as other routes are put together.
GLORIA Center, August 7th 2011
The Assad regime’s brutal assault on the town of Hama should serve to dispel any notion that the struggle in Syria is nearing its end, or that the Assad regime has accepted its fate.
The general direction of the revolts in the Arab world now suggests that the region’s worst dictators have an even chance of survival, on condition that they have no qualms about going to war against their own people.
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have internalized the lesson.
Military theorists today are divided regarding the role of the main battle tank in the battlefield of the future. Assad over the past 48 hours has demonstrated that whatever the outcome of this debate, the role of the tank as an instrument of war against civilians remains highly relevant in the Middle East.
The Syrian President’s elite 4th Armored Division would be unlikely to last long against the Israeli Defence Force’s 7th Brigade on the Golan Heights.
Against the civilian protesters of Hama, however, it has proven a highly effective instrument. The death toll from Assad’s reducing of Hama now stands at around 140. There are hundreds more wounded. Assad’s military machine is reported now to be descending on Deir a-Zour. The neighborhood of Al-Joura in the town is being shelled, according to opposition sources. There are persistent reports of large-scale desertions from the army in the Deir a-Zour area.
Protests in support of Hama have begun in Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt against the Assad regime. Renewed protests in the environs of Damascus are also taking place. The response of the West to the events in Hama has been an additional notching- up of the rhetoric.
US President Barack Obama is now “horrified” by events in Syria. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, professed himself “appalled” by the latest reports. Both the German and Italian governments have called for an urgent discussion of the issue at the UN Security Council.
Assad is unlikely to be unduly alarmed at this prospect. The international community remains divided on Syria. Russia, a long-term close ally of the Assads, has been critical of regime tactics but would be likely to veto any attempt at an effective response via the UN.
The West itself is also lukewarm.
There is no enthusiasm among any Western public for further embroiling in Middle East affairs. Hague has explicitly ruled out military action.
The small demonstrations outside Syrian embassies in Europe are attended by Syrian expatriates alone. Those who were predicting a wave of democratization in the region six months ago now look hopelessly naïve. As a consequence, the US and European countries have yet to even call for the resignation of Assad. And the sanctions in place against him are far less than would be required to really force a change of policy.
And yet, with all this, the regime has found it impossible to quell the revolt. Since mid-April, it has been in a state of more or less open war against its own people. The latest increase in repression was designed to re-assert control over areas of particular rebel support before the onset of Ramadan. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, has been the main focus of protests.
The regime doubtlessly calculated, correctly, that with the onset of Ramadan, the volatile crowds that have manned the demonstrations would be on the streets on a daily basis. It was therefore imperative to re-assert control in rebel areas.
In Hama, the Syrian military pursued this mission with extreme vigor. But if the regime hoped that this would finally allow them to begin to contain the unrest, it was wrong.
The crucial question now, is where all this is heading. The irresistible force of the uprising has met with the immovable object of the Assad regime. What is the prognosis? The answer appears to be an intensification of the efforts of both sides. The Assad regime’s efforts to crush the regime are taking on a more nakedly sectarian hue.
This is the Alawi ruling elite in Syria fighting for its survival.
Alawi military units and Alawi militias (the Shabiha) are the instruments remaining to the Assads. Sectarian revenge killings of Shabiha men by Sunni Syrians in Homs earlier this month may presage the opening of a new, uglier chapter.
The key issue remains whether the security forces will stay united. There are persistent, hard to verify reports of desertions in considerable numbers. An army colonel, Riad al-Asaad, has emerged in the last days, claiming to be the leader of a “Syrian Free Army,” on the country’s border with Turkey. It will soon become clear if there is anything to this claim.
But with neither side willing to back down, increased violence may well be the only logical direction for events to take. Assad has gathered the core of his Alawi regime around him, for a fight to the end. There are increasing numbers among the rebels, especially after the latest events in Hama, who will be determined to meet him head-on. The result: Syria today stands on the threshold of a slide into sectarian civil war.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, tand he author of The
Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010).
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Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 11, No. 12 9 August 2011
- In Syria, the story is the emergence of social groups from the periphery and their struggle to gain access to power and take over the center. The emergence of the Baath party and the Assad dynasty in the 1960s involved a coalition of peripheral forces led by the Alawites, but many others joined who came from the periphery. Now, because of socioeconomic reasons, the periphery has turned against the regime.
- Before the uprising, Bashar al-Assad was supported by the Islamic and radical movements in the Middle East. Most Muslim Brothers supported him – in Jordan, Egypt, and Hamas. Now they have turned their back on him, led by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on a global scale, who reminds them that, after all, Bashar is an Alawite and supported by the Shiite camp.
- Turkey, under Prime Minister Erdogan, had become a close ally of Syria. But Erdogan has no reservations regarding the possibility that Muslim radicals might come to power in Syria if Bashar falls. On the contrary, the Sunni radicals and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are Erdogan’s close allies, as is Hamas. So Turkey has nothing to lose if Bashar falls.
- If Bashar falls, the situation is likely to be similar to that of earlier decades, with a very weak central regime. This could lead to border incidents with Israel, but not a war, with terrorist acts that a weak regime cannot prevent.
- The Syrian opposition will eventually take over and, as in the case of Egypt, they know that their interests lie with friendship with Western countries like the United States, and not with Iran. So in the long run, a new Syrian regime might be better for Israel than this current regime.
The Periphery Has Turned Against the Regime
It is clear that the Syrian regime has failed in its efforts to suppress the protests, which have spread all over the country. At the same time, the regime is still there and it is still strong and can fight back. The army, including soldiers and officers who belong not only to Assad’s Alawite community but also to other sects and communities, is still ready to fight for the regime. Unlike Egypt, where the gap between the army and the political leadership became quite clear, this is not the case in Syria. And unlike Libya, when immediately following the beginning of the uprising there were many defections by ambassadors, senior officials, and army officers, this is clearly not the case in Syria.
In Egypt there was a clear generational dimension to the revolution, which was led to a certain degree by the younger generation. In Libya, the tension is between east and west – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. In Yemen, there is the tribal factor – the struggle for power between the south and the north, and also between different tribal configurations. In Syria, the story is a struggle between the periphery and the center, with the emergence of social groups from the periphery and their struggle to gain access to power and take over the center.
This was actually the history of Syria in the 1950s and 1960s. The emergence of the Baath party and of the Assad dynasty involved the struggle of the periphery. It was a coalition of peripheral forces led by the Alawites, the Assad dynasty, but there were many others who joined this coalition and who came from the periphery. Farouk al-Sharaa, the current vice-president and previously the foreign minister, who joined the Baath struggle for power, came from Daraa. Mustafa Tlass, who served as defense minister under Hafez al-Assad for nearly 30 years, came from Rastan, a small town near Homs, where there has been severe violence.
While the key figures in the political echelon are Alawites, the majority of ministers in the government are Sunnis, which reflects Syrian society. They are Sunnis from the big cities, or Sunnis who came many years ago from the periphery and have lost any connection with the periphery. The periphery supported the Baath regime, even during a difficult time in the 1980s when the regime fought the radical Islamists. Now, because of socioeconomic reasons, the periphery has turned against the regime. Thus, this regime has lost a major base of support.
Compare this with Egypt, for example. In Egypt we have not heard about the periphery during the revolution because the movement there was led by young, educated, and middle- to upper-middle-class people who decided to take to the streets and demonstrate against Mubarak. The young, middle-class Syrians in Damascus and Aleppo have not yet decided, and are still waiting to see what might happen. The unrest is still limited to the periphery, while the main urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo, while they may not support the regime, have not yet joined the protest. Once it reaches these places, it might be the end of the regime, but we are not yet at that stage. We should watch for a shift in the attitudes of the urban Sunni elites in both cities.
The uprising is gaining momentum. It moved from small villages to bigger towns and then it moved to some of the large cities, like Homs and Hama. The key thing to watch for is the continued cohesiveness of the Syrian army. How long will Sunni soldiers and officers be ready to shoot at demonstrators and take part in the efforts by the regime to brutally suppress the uprising?
There is no real opposition in Syria. There are many intellectuals, many critics of the regime, and many human-rights activists inside and outside Syria. Outside Syria there are some groups that call themselves the opposition, but they have no real influence over events inside Syria. Conferences of opposition activists were held in Turkey and later in Brussels which might lead to the emergence of a much more effective opposition with a clear leadership and more influence over the course of events. This could prove to be a very dangerous threat to the regime because this group might eventually be recognized by European and later by other countries as the legitimate leadership of Syria. Right now there are no groups which could be recognized as such, but it may happen in the future.
The Bashar al-Assad Regime
Only ten years ago, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a reformer with a Western mentality. However, Bashar has said that he was raised in Syria in the house of Hafez al-Assad, and is no different from him. The Western countries and the American administration believed that there was no better alternative to the Assad regime – if this regime collapses, the case of Iraq may repeat itself with chaos, terrorism, and Islamic radicalism. But now there is a change in the attitude of the West toward Syria.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is an important part of the Axis of Evil, supported by Iran and Hizbullah. However, Iran and Hizbullah can do very little to help him, especially inside Syria, because part of the uprising and the unrest has to do with Sunni-Shiite tension and, clearly, Shiite Iran will pay heavily for its support of Bashar al-Assad if he falls.
Before the uprising, Bashar was supported by the Islamic and radical movements in the Middle East. Most Muslim Brothers supported him – in Jordan, Egypt, and Hamas. Now they have turned their back on him, led by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on a global scale, who reminds them that, after all, Bashar is an Alawite and supported by the Shiite camp. Now Qaradawi, as well as other Muslim Brothers all over the Arab world, and even Hamas, are having second thoughts about their alliance with Bashar.
Bashar also had the support of the pan-Arabists. An example is Azmi Bishara, a former Israeli Arab MK who now lives in Qatar. He is Christian but supported Syria as a stronghold of resistance to Israel. Now these people have come to think of Bashar as an obstacle to the revival of pan-Arabism.
Turkey, under Prime Minister Erdogan, had become a close ally of Syria. But Erdogan has no reservations regarding the possibility that Muslim radicals might come to power in Syria if Bashar falls. On the contrary, the Sunni radicals and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are Erdogan’s close allies, as is Hamas. So Turkey has nothing to lose if Bashar falls.
Clearly, the unrest in Syria has to do with economics. We tend to think that the Syrian economy was doing well, but this prosperity involved the center and some Sunni urban elites, but it had little connection to the periphery (which is exactly what happened in Egypt as well). The World Bank was very satisfied with the conduct of the Syrian economy, but the periphery had reservations. Right now the Syrian economy is paralyzed, and Bashar has made some dramatic changes, bringing back subsidies. The tourist industry has collapsed. Even if he survives, Bashar could pay heavily and might be in desperate need not of Iranian missiles but of economic aid.
In the coming weeks and months, if the unrest continues, the Syrian economy will remain paralyzed and Bashar will have no resources to satisfy the urban elites in Damascus and Aleppo, where the middle class could turn against him. So he is playing for time, but time is not on his side. He needs to bring this unrest to an immediate halt, because if it continues, it will threaten his interests.
When Bashar speaks about reform, what he has in mind is to open new schools, to launch new tourist projects, to encourage industry. It has nothing to do with any political change or reform because this would be against the nature of his regime.
Bashar is now fighting for his life and what is happening outside Syria has no relevance right now. We know exactly what might happen to him and to all of his generals in the event of regime change. Since he is fighting for his life, he will do what is needed to win, and he does not care that the Americans and Europeans are condemning him for his brutality.
The Syrians do not see Egypt as a model that is relevant for them. The model that is relevant for Syria is Iraq or Lebanon. Syrians look at the Iraqi model as an example of what might happen if the regime collapses: disintegration of the state, bloodshed, and ethnic clashes.
So far the protest is limited to the Sunni periphery. We have not heard about unrest in the Druze areas in southern Syria. Christians are clearly in full support of the Assad regime, as are the other minorities. The Kurds in eastern Syria are still in a position of wait-and-see.
Syrian Relations with Israel
The Syrian regime has no interest in an escalation along the Syrian-Israeli border. Syria knows that any small incident can turn into a major war like in Lebanon in 2006. I wonder if it was indeed the Syrian regime who organized all those demonstrations along the border on Nakba and Naksa days. Clearly, when the regime was strong, it could not have happened. Now that the regime is weaker and Assad is focusing much of his attention on the riots all over Syria, such events can happen. But when it got out of control, the regime made an effort to contain and bring the events to an end. Bashar needs his soldiers to fight the Syrian people and to suppress the revolt. The last thing he needs is a war with Israel in which Israel might destroy his army, leaving him without any defensive shield against this uprising.
Making peace with Israel is not a popular idea in the Arab world. A weak leader will not even consider it. There is a consensus in Syria that one day it will be possible to think about settling the conflict with Israel, but in a weak regime with a leader under attack, this is not the right time. Nobody in Syria cared about the demonstrations on Nakba and Naksa days. All they care about is Bashar and his regime. People in Syria do not care about what the Israelis do right now.
The Syrian regime should be considered a strategic threat to Israel because Bashar al-Assad has sought to develop nuclear capabilities. He provided support to Hamas and Hizbullah – not the kind of support his father used to give them, but strategic support which turned Hizbullah into a major strategic threat to Israel. Bashar was the one who brought the Iranians to Syria and to the region. The Iranians had been present, but only as guests. Now they are in a different position and the alliance became closer. At the same time, Bashar maintained quiet on the Golan Heights border and said he wanted to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
The Syrian ruler came to the conclusion that having a nuclear capability was what saved the North Korean regime, and that what enabled the Americans to attack Saddam Hussein was the fact that he did not have a nuclear option. A different Syrian regime may not have the economic resources and the intimate links to North Korea and Iran, and might not feel the need for a nuclear capability. It could be that Syria under a new regime will be different than Syria under the Assad dynasty. Hafez al-Assad, with Western help, was able to turn Syria – a small, backward state – into a regional power. Take the Assad dynasty out of the equation and Syria will remain an important state geographically, but not the regional power it was before.
As for peace with Israel, there was something personal in the Syrian demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee because Hafez al-Assad, as defense minister, was the one who lost the war in 1967. If you remove the Assad dynasty from the equation, perhaps the Syrian stance will become more flexible.
A New Syrian Regime Might Be Better for Israel
The weaker Syria is, the stronger Lebanon will be. Any regime change in Syria could be a blow to Hizbullah, even though Hizbullah does represent many of the Shiites. It is a deeply rooted, authentic Lebanese Shiite power center. However, it was the help of Syria and Iran that turned Hizbullah into a regional power. Taking Syria out of the equation could reduce Hizbullah to a more reasonable size – to become a strong Lebanese party but not more than that.
Syria supported the Shiites in Lebanon, but at the same time gave some backing to the Sunnis because the logic behind Syrian intervention in Lebanon has always been: divide and rule. A Sunni regime in Syria might change the balance in Lebanon in favor of the Sunnis.
A new regime in Syria could mean a return to the 1950s and 1960s when there was a weak, decentralized Syrian government with strong regions. Each region has its own ethnic and communal characteristics, and there may be a coup d’état from time to time and a lack of stability. The worst scenario is that Syria will turn into a new Iraq, because there are now not only historical accounts to settle but current accounts as well. There have been 2,000 Syrians killed and the families will ask for revenge, not from Bashar but from their Alawite and Christian neighbors.
I do not think it is in Israel’s interest to have Bashar in power. Certainly, as in Egypt, it is always possible that the Muslim Brotherhood might take over in Syria, but I am not sure that this will be the case. If Bashar falls, the situation is likely to be similar to that of earlier decades, with a very weak central regime. This could lead to border incidents with Israel, but not a war, with terrorist acts that a weak regime cannot prevent. The Syrian opposition will eventually take over and, as in the case of Egypt, they know that their interests lie with friendship with Western countries like the United States, and not with Iran. So in the long run, a new Syrian regime might be better for Israel than this current regime.
Prof. Eyal Zisser is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, and former Head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, both at Tel Aviv University. He is a leading expert on Syria and has written extensively on the history and modern politics of Syria, Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among his books are: In the Name of the Father: Bashar al-Asad’s First Years in Power, Lebanon: the Challenge of Independence and Assad’s Syria at a Crossroads. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 16, 2011.