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Unrest in Syria may mean dangers and opportunities

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With unrest roiling Syria, it’s unclear whether further unrest will stoke conflict along the Israel-Syrian border, pictured here in November 2009. Hamad Alkamt/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – With the turmoil rocking the Middle East now threatening the regime in Syria, Israeli faces potentially grave dangers and huge opportunities.

The dangers are clear: The emergence of a more radical regime in Syria could mean a stronger Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Iran could get direct access to its allies in Lebanon through a Syrian regime that’s even friendlier toward Tehran. Syria’s huge stockpiles of missiles and chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The unrest on Israel’s doorstep could spread to the west bank and to Jordan. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s more radical successors could use a conflict with Israel to build domestic legitimacy.

News Analysis

Against all that, a huge opportunity is opening up for positive regional change if Syria’s president or a more moderate successor regime is spurred to turn to the West with a program of democratic reforms and a call for economic aid to make it work. That would mean a severe weakening of the Iranian axis and an opening for peacemaking with Israel.

Given the possibilities, the Israelis aren’t sure whether to hope for the fall of Assad or not.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and one of Israel’s leading experts on Syria, says that if Assad falls, the big losers will be Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

So far, Iran has been one of the main beneficiaries of the regional turmoil, Rabinovich noted in a column in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot. Iran’s rival in Egypt was toppled from power; Shiite allies have staged an uprising in Bahrain; the pressure on rival Saudi Arabia’s regime is growing — and it’s all deflecting world attention away from Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But if a new Western-leaning regime in Damascus were to emerge, that would be a huge blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. To prevent that, Iran might press Assad to escalate tensions with Israel in an attempt to unify the Syrian people against a common enemy, Rabinovich and others have warned.

But Israeli government officials say it’s unlikely that the unrest in Syria will spill over into new cross-border hostilities.

“The probability of Assad heating up the northern border to divert attention from his domestic troubles is not high,” Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Israel Radio. He added that the turmoil in the Arab world presents not only dangers, but also opportunities; he did not elaborate.

Most Israeli Syria experts believe that Assad’s chances of retaining power are good.

Hebrew University’s Moshe Maoz, author of several books on Syria, said that although the Alawite minority community from which Assad hails numbers only about 13 percent of Syria’s population, it has firm control over the levers of state power, especially the armed forces.

“Like his father, Bashar Assad has carefully placed his own people everywhere,” Maoz told JTA. “And although there are Alawites who see themselves as Bashar’s enemies, they fear the moment he falls they could be subject to massacre by the Sunni majority.”

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is the most well-organized potential opposition force in Syria, Maoz says it does not have the wherewithal for a successful rebellion.

“They can preach rebellion in the mosques, but they don’t have the arms to carry it out,” he said. “There is no military force in Syria that could seriously challenge the army, over which Bashar has absolute control. And I don’t see Bashar giving in and stepping down without a fight. For him it is a battle for survival for the family, the tribe, the sect.”

There are other factors working in Assad’s favor.

For one thing, no clear opposition group or leader has emerged. For another, young people in Syria have been subject to years of pro-regime indoctrination, and Assad is not universally hated the way some of the other Arab autocrats are (or were). The Assads even created special Koran schools to make the Alawite faith more palatable to the Sunni majority.

This is why Assad’s carrot-and-stick policy actually could work, Maoz said. Assad is offering far-reaching reforms, such as canceling the 1963 emergency law and allowing the formation of political parties, while at the same time using the armed forces to keep the protesters at bay. So far, dozens have been killed.

Assad is unlikely to go to war with Israel because he knows it would be disastrous for Syria and for his regime, Maoz said. “Assad has his own military calculus. He is not under Iran’s thumb,” he added.

Indeed, Maoz believes the unrest could drive Assad toward the West to better meet the new demands of the Syrian people.

“If he remains in power, he might take a more pragmatic approach, looking for Western economic aid and for negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan, which is important to him for strategic and emotional reasons,” Maoz said.

Alon Liel, chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, is also upbeat. Liel, who held informal peace talks with Syrian delegates between 2004 and 2006, also thinks Assad is likely to survive.

Apart from his control of the levers of state power, Liel noted, Assad has received strong support from key regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the international community.

Unlike in the cases of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the United States has not exerted any pressure on Assad to leave. That makes all the difference, Liel says: If Assad survives, he might feel beholden to the West and see in it the answer to his domestic troubles.

“He will have to make significant reforms,” Liel said. “That is not only a domestic demand. It is a demand of the international community that will have saved him.”

In Liel’s view, in the most likely alternative scenario, Assad will be ousted by others in the close-knit leadership group, made a scapegoat for all Syria’s woes, and replaced by someone like his estranged brother-in-law Assef Shawqat, a hardliner who is closer to Iran.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Who’s next?

Ousting Assad may take a long while

Uriel HeilmanWorld
Published: 26 August 2011

He was the Arab world’s most quixotic leader.

During the Reagan era, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States. Later, after his apparent cooperation in dismantling nonconventional weapons, he became an ally to President George W. Bush’s administration in the war on terror.

He called for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation called Isratine. He traveled overseas with a coterie of fetching female bodyguards. He slept in an elaborate tent.

Now that Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi appears on the verge of being cast into the dustbin of history—he was nowhere to be seen this week when rebels stormed his compound in Tripoli—the question in the Arab world is: Who’s next?

All eyes are on President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Last week, President Obama and a host of European leaders called on the Syrian leader to step down. Assad yet again marshaled tanks and troops, and sent them into the streets to face off against anti-government demonstrators, pushing the death toll well into the thousands. The United States and European Union countries responded by clamping down with new sanctions against Damascus. Even the leaders of Turkey, an ally of Syria, called on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

If you are waiting for the regime in Damascus to disappear, however, it may be a long wait. Syria is no Libya, and Assad is no Gadhafi.

What is more, such an outcome may not be in Israel’s best interests.

To be sure, anyone who said a year ago that three Arab dictators would be toppled by popular uprisings in the space of nine months would have been called a naïf. That does not mean, however, that the Arab world is preparing for yet another fallen dictator.

A few elements make Syria’s case different from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

For one thing, opposition to Assad materialized much more slowly, both inside and outside the country. Domestically, anti-government demonstrations have yet to explode into a full-scale armed uprising, which was the case in Libya and Tunisia. The Assad family has maintained its long and iron-fisted rule over Syria by stoking the fires of the country’s sectarian divisions. While Assad might be reviled by some in the country, others—including the Alawite community from which he hails—view him as a patron of sorts.

In Egypt, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime owed at least as much to the military’s decision to side with the people as it did to the protesters themselves. Indeed, for the time being, the uprising there looks more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In Syria, however, the military remains fiercely loyal to the regime.

Within the Arab world, opposition to Gadhafi’s assault against his own people came almost immediately, with the Arab League’s endorsement of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the country. But it took the same body until last week to demand that Assad end his bloody crackdown, months after it began. And even then, the Arab League’s statement fell far short of endorsing military operations, as it did in Libya.

Likewise, it took much longer for Western leaders to call for Assad’s ouster. And unlike with Libya, so far these leaders have given no real consideration to backing up their talk with air strikes.

Why not?

For one thing, it would not look good for the United States to be involved in four wars in Muslim countries. And unlike with Libya, neither the Syrian opposition nor the Arab League has asked the West to intervene.

Perhaps most notably, there is great anxiety in the Middle East and around the world about what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

That is not to say that either the Americans or Israelis have any affection for Assad, but the instability that almost certainly would follow his ouster could complicate matters for a host of neighbors.

Israel already is dealing with instability on its borders with Gaza and Egypt, and its frontier with Syria has been at its quietest over the course of nearly four decades—at least, until the protests in Syria began. Change, in Israel’s view, is an unknown and therefore a frightening prospect.

To its west, Syria traditionally has played the role of patron and overlord to Lebanon. Assad’s ouster could strengthen Hezbollah, or even throw Lebanon into complete disarray.

Perhaps most worrisome, a vacuum of power in Syria could be filled by nearby Iran.

For the time being, it seems that so long as the West declines to take up arms, it will be up to the Syrian people to get rid of their leader. Unlike with Egypt, a recipient of U.S. aid and a subject of U.S. influence, Syria long has been a pariah state and has minimal ties with the United States. It cannot be subject to the same kind of moderating pressure that was applied in Egypt.

All this does not mean that Assad will stick around forever. If the last few months have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected in the Middle East.

If Assad is to go, however, it looks like nothing short of a war will convince him.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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