The implications of the End of the Assad Regime in Syria

As high ranking officials begin to desert and others are being blown up, and now that the Red Cross has finally admitted that the current violence in Syria now constitutes a “civil war” some may wonder whether or not the rotten regime in Damascus is finally about to reap the whirlwind and be consigned to the “ashbin of history.” While there are questions as to whether or not any succeeding government in Syria would be democratic, let alone benign, and keeping in mind that the Assad regime has weathered major crises before, there is little doubt that the current uprising constitutes the greatest challenge to its survival. Despite the fact that the Syrian regime supposedly has a similar infamous reputation at being ruthless at quashing dissent as the late Baathist regime in Iraq, it seems as though it can no longer retain control through brute force for much longer. Is this the beginning of the end of more than forty years of rule by the Assad dynasty in Syria?

Based upon empirical evidence betting on the Assad regime holding onto power indefinitely seems like a poor wager indeed. Most of the indicators of a doomed tyranny are present. Besides high level defections and the fact the Syrian opposition is gaining greater capabilities (as seen by the bombing attack that killed four high ranking Baathist officials recently) and increasing in numbers, the fighting has now reached Damascus itself. Given that the regime’s insincere efforts to appease and negotiate, combined with the use of force to stop the Syrian opposition has come to naught, the only chance it has now would be to launch a vastly disproportionate massacre such as it did against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when it killed between 10,000-40,000 people in the city of Hama. However, even if the Syrian regime decided to up the ante such bloodlust would probably force the U.S. and NATO to finally intervene, at least via Airpower, and the result would probably be a replay of the successful campaign to overthrow Colonel Gadhafi in Libya last year.

Indeed such a move towards such excess violence against the Syrian people would probably move Russia and China to abandon their support for the Assad regime, cutting off whatever significant materially aid Syria is getting abroad, as well as isolating it on the world stage. In fact it could be argued that Russian and Chinese support is the last hope Assad has left. There are precedents here; it was the removal of Russian diplomatic support, not the air campaign against Serbia, that ultimately ended the Kosovo conflict, and America’s decision to abandon Batista that led to Castro’s take over of Cuba. At the risk of sounding presumptuous it is likely that the Assad dynasty would crumble in a matter of days if the neo-commies (Russia and China) withdrew their support.

Of course there is the chance that even under these circumstances Syria’s leadership would fight to the death regardless. If one looks at the composition of the Syrian elite they would not be blamed for thinking the end of the regime would result in sectarian violence. Most of the political, military and economic elite in Syria is composed of the small Alawi (an offshoot of Islam) and Christian minorities as well as a segment of the better off Sunni population. Meanwhile the vast majority of Syrians are relatively poor Sunnis that have little share in the economic success or notable positions within the military or political institutions. Of course the fears of sectarian violence are fueled by the horrible excesses that occurred between the Christians and Muslims during the “Lebanese Civil War,” and even more recently the triangle of violence between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein during the “Iraq War.” Much of the violence in these two conflicts was initiated by the elites (the Christians in Lebanon and the Sunnis in Iraq) who were afraid of losing their power base. There is no evidence to suggest that the Syrian Alawi and Christians’ response to losing their preeminence would be any more enlightened or humane.

As for the potential of the Americans, NATO, or even Syria’s neighbors intervening in the conflict, with the possible exception noted above, the most likely any of them would do (or more likely are doing right now) would be to offer the rebels safe havens, intelligence, weaponry and supplies. Despite countless pundits stressing that an attack on Syria would be a more difficult task than the late war against Gadhafi most estimates regarding Syrian military capabilities give the Assad regime more credit than it deserves. In one of my earlier papers I pointed out that during the last sixty years the Syrians have not won a war, let alone a battle, of any significance. This despite the fact they have often outnumbered and outgunned their enemies.

However, the same pundits usually point out the massive umbrella of SAMs (surface to air missiles) and anti-aircraft assets deployed across the country, noting their dense concentrations and relatively modern capabilities. While such defenses should not be taken lightly, they are certainly not as potent as they are made out to be. Thirty years earlier the Israelis destroyed all of Syria’s SAMs in the Beka Valley (which was then the largest concentration of anti-aircraft defenses in the world) without loss and even recently the Israelis somehow shut down the whole air defense system in Syria when they bombed a suspected nuclear site in the northeast of the country. Even more amusingly Israeli planes buzz Assad’s presidential palace without fear of consequence from time to time. There is no reason to believe that the even more technologically superior American air force, and arguably NATO forces as well, would not be able to defeat Syria’s air defenses, albeit probably needing more time and effort to do so versus the campaign in Libya.

Of course there is the fact that the Syrians recently shot down a Turkish fighter jet, which cannot be discounted out of hand. However, there have been suggestions it was relatively easy for the Syrians do so because of the fallout of military ties between the Israelis and the Turks. Basically, the Israelis and Turks collaborated closely on the F-4 Phantom fighter jets in the Turkish air force with the Israelis continuously giving the Turks upgrades (including electronic countermeasures to defeat Syria’s air defenses). However, it is apparent that the latest upgrades were never given to the Turks since they unilaterally broke military ties with the Israelis after the controversial Israeli decision to forcibly stop the international flotilla heading to Gaza a few years ago. This has undoubtedly hurt Turkey more than Israel, and was a very stupid decision on the behalf of the Turkish government which was motivated by an erroneous belief in moral superiority regarding Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. I say “erroneous” because Turkey’s historical treatment of the Armenians and the Kurds has not been any more humane than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Turkey is lucky that the Kurds do not have the lobbying power at the U.N, or among other governments, than the Palestinians do.

Anyway, were the U.S. or NATO to intervene in the Syrian conflict it would most likely resemble the Libya intervention of last year. It would arguably be more difficult due to Syria’s superior military power vs. Libya’s, the lack of NATO bases close to the country and the fact that the conflict is more concentrated among urban centers rather than open desert. Once again being almost exclusively an air campaign it would probably prove more difficult in hitting tanks, trucks, artillery pieces and other conventional targets and also result in far more civilian casualties. On the other hand it could arguably lessens the length of the Syrian conflict as Western intervention would probably lead to the end of Russian and Chinese diplomatic support to Assad, boost the morale of the Syrian opposition while undermining that of the regime’s, and severely degrade the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces. While it is unlikely, and probably unwise for the West to intervene, it would surely not be as difficulty to do so as the skeptics claim.

Perhaps the most important question regarding the likely collapse of the Syrian regime is what would follow it? The naive optimists usually say a more democratic successor, while the cynical realists would bet on a newly rejuvenated Muslim Brotherhood or some equivalent. Yet either of these would be better than the third potential option; sectarian strife on a comparable scale to what happened in Iraq. While it is tempting to look at the latest outcomes in Egypt and Libya, the circumstances in these two countries are far different than in Syria.

In Egypt there was little violence when Mubarak was overthrown and the transition between military governance and the new pseudo democracy has been relatively smooth, if not ideal. Also, the Egyptian people generally respect their military despite the fact they have provided the last three presidents and were just as responsible for oppressing the Egyptians as they were. Finally, despite some violence between Sunnis and Coptic Christians there is little chance of Egypt descending into sectarian strife as in Iraq and Lebanon (not least because the Christian minority has little power to oppose the Sunnis). While the new Muslim Brotherhood President Morsai has not endeared himself to the West by stating he wants closer ties to Iran and is reviewing the peace treaty with Israel, there is no immediate reason to be overly concerned and it is possible the new government in Cairo will find some accommodation with the West (not least because of the significant amount of foreign aid Washington still gives to Egypt).

Libya’s path to freedom was admittedly more violent, but despite some concerns it has not been overly unstable since the overthrow of Gadhafi. It is hoped that NATO’s role in finishing off the regime won the West some points with the Libyans, but it seems as a rule that whereas anything bad the West does in the region is usually remembered, anything positive it does is generally forgotten. However, to be fair relatively moderate candidates did better in the recent Libyan election than the fanatics. Either way, Libya’s geographic, political, and ethnic composition is too different from Syria’s to make it a valid comparison. It is no doubt frustrating for Arabs and Muslims to be pigeon holed into countless stereotypes. In fact many of the their countries are very different despite having a similar religious and cultural background. It would be like saying that the French, German, and British people are all the same.

Which once again leaves us as to the likely fate of Syria as soon as the Assad regime implodes. Unfortunately, based on Middle Eastern history in general and Syrian history in particular, the prospects are not entirely hopeful. Since its independence in the late 40s’ until the early 70s’ Syria arguably went through more coups and governments than any other country in the region, if not the world. In fact, one of the reasons the Baathist party was popular, at least initially, was it finally gave the country some stability. However, that stability came at a cost and the Syrian regime, like its former secular counterpart in Baghdad was probably more bloody and repressive than the religious zealots in Riyadh and Tehran. While most of the countries in the region have initiated some reforms regarding personal liberties and economic incentives, Bashar al-Assad introduced only a few the first year or so he came to power and then quickly went back on them. No doubt the remnants of his father’s entourage, and the preferential treatment of the Alawi and Christians, quashed any serious chances of reform.

Unfortunately, this leaves Syria with very few options. The ideal situation would be for the Sunni majority to offer amnesty to the Alawi and Christian minorities and give them a future role in the next administration. This would probably require allowing these minorities to retain a significant amount of power, at least in the economic sphere, to discourage them from turning to violence if they felt slighted. There are precedents here, as Boris Yeltsin allowed the old Communist elites (an obvious oxymoron) to retain much of their clout after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and while it undoubtedly led to the powerful mafias that control much of Russia today, it was obviously preferable to a protracted civil war. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood would be wise not to overly challenge the military elite in Egypt, who control much of the economy and still have a monopoly on the use of force, as long as they allow it to govern the country. Seeing as though these officers care more about enriching themselves than promoting any ideology, it is possible they will ultimately reach an agreement.

However the chances of this occurring in Syria are slim. More likely the Sunni majority, oppressed for decades under the Assad dynasty will want to dominate the next government and seek revenge on the Alawi and Christians minorities. There are simply too many instances of this happening in the Middle East, from the exodus of the pied noires from Algeria in the 60s’, the bloodletting of the Lebanese Civil War, Hamas’s treatment of Fatah after they conquered the Gaza Strip, to the near genocidal tendencies of the Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq after the American invasion. The only exception the author can think of was the amnesty Hezbollah gave to the South Lebanese Army after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and they certainly did not offer them a share in power. Perhaps the only way to avoid such a situation would be for the U.S. and the West to offer material and trade incentives to the new power in Damascus in exchange for leniency regarding treatment of the minorities. Whether or not this would work remains pure speculation.

As to what faction would come to power in lieu of a collapse of the Assad regime given how little moderates are respected in the region, and given how organized and popular it tends to be in many nations it would be no surprise if the Muslim Brotherhood eventually came to power, as it did in Egypt. For some reason the masses in the Middle East, if not pretty much everywhere, hate educated moderates and tend to respect relatively extremist factions who have no qualms regarding oppressing other points of view and advocating violence. While some would point out that the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt at least, has renounced violence, it may have had something to do with the fact the Assad dynasty butchered the Muslim Brotherhood, along with 10s of thousands of civilians in Hama in 1982. Certainly, its Syrian equivalent is engaged in the brutal fight against the regime now that it has had a resurgence (it is typical of subversive groups to denounce violence when they are weak, as Fatah and Hamas have done at times when Israeli pressure has become overly coercive).

There is also the potential that other less savory elements, such as Al-Qaeda or foreign guerrillas or terrorists that have gone to Syria to join in the fight, could have an impact on the next government in Damascus. However, this is unlikely as similar factions in the “Iraq War” and Libya ultimately failed to win any significant power in these respective nations. In the case of Al-Qaeda its extremist views, and often atrocious excesses, alienated most of the population, and the other movements were either too small or fragmented to be politically effective.

No, the only real contenders are the slowly recuperating Muslim Brotherhood or some moderate faction that would be useful at courting Western aid and support in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War. While some hope that the moderates could ultimately win due to the fact that Syria, like Iraq, is more secular vs. more fanatical countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, this is no guarantee any successive regime would be more moderate, tolerant, or even friendly towards Israel and the West. In fact, secular countries or movements have often been as hostile, indeed sometimes more so, than their religious counterparts. Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah were no less determined to destroying Israel and opposing the West than the Ayatollah, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah. In fact one could argue the secular movements have killed more people, especially their own, than the religious nut jobs.

Anyway, the moderates, who are generally more peaceful and pro-west, are usually seen as puppets of the Israelis or the West. This is why Fatah, once at the forefront of the Palestinian cause, has become hated by the masses in the region ever since it took control in the occupied territories and become less radical. Likewise, the Pro-West regime in Beirut has less teeth in Lebanon than Hezbollah, and the Shah of Iran is still seen as a traitor despite the fact the theocracy in Iran has been more bloody and oppressive. Put another way, there is a reason only two countries in the region have made peace with Israel; Egypt and Jordan. In the case of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, the man who signed the peace treaty was gunned down by extremists, and the late King Hussein of Jordan survived countless assassination attempts, squabbles, and even a civil war by elements that questioned his resolve to fight Israel. Being accommodating to the West in the Middle East is simply too dangerous of a game for factions in the region to attempt earnestly.

This leaves the Muslim Brotherhood, or some other extremist faction, as the likely successor to any Assad regime. This by itself is not necessarily bad for Western interests. So far the relationship between Egypt and the West has not faltered after the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in that nation (no doubt the billions of dollars in aide provided by Washington has played a significant part). Even unstable elements such as Colonel Gadhafi, the Taliban, and the late Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) have all at one time or another proven able to do business with the West, as long as it has been in their interest. The key words are “in their interest” as they have all ultimately ended up as implacable enemies of the Israelis and the West.

This implies that after the wanton destruction of Syria in lieu of the civil war, it is likely that whoever is in charge, even the Muslim Brotherhood, will probably seek good relations, at least initially, with the West, if only to rebuild and get the country back on its feet. While it is possible that the successors of the Assad regime could instead seek continued relations with its usual supporters, the Russians and Chinese, it is unlikely given that their unequivocal support of Assad has probably made them targets of hatred among the Syrian populace. Either way, such a pro-west stance could arguably only last as long as it is was convenient for the new power in Damascus. Given the likely chance that a Muslim Brotherhood administration would arguably be no less democratic or tolerant to women, and given that such policies have inevitably led to disenchantment and economic backwardness in nearly every single government and country in the region since independence of European hegemony, the end result would probably be an angry and resentful population looking for someone to blame. Without exception, not wanting to be blamed themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood would play the usual card of Arab despots and pin responsibility on the Americans and the Jews.

This practice, sad and predictable as it is, seems to be the circle of life regarding every new ideology, faction, or regime that is introduced into the Middle East. At the risk of being labelled a cynic, I cannot see how the Muslim Brotherhood, which served as the forerunner of Al-Qaeda, could possibly break this cycle.

Anyway, considering the Assad regime is most likely going to fall, and since the West and Israel will have to work with whoever comes to power in Damascus, the only sensible thing would be to embrace the new leadership and make earnest attempts to try to come to some sort of an accommodation. While it is by no means probable that any new regime would be pro-west or reciprocate such efforts, in the end no serious person would be able to say that the Israelis or West did not at least try to do their best to try to work with the new regime. I say “no serious person” because there is always going to be some people who think everything in the Middle East is the fault of the West or the Israelis, and that the Russians, Chinese, or the many undemocratic and bloodthirsty elements in the region could never do no wrong.

Besides the debate as to who will inherit the throne in Damascus, there is the larger question as to what will be the wider impact upon the region, if not the world. While optimists and fear mongers often exaggerate the likely effects regarding their extreme preferences, it is admittedly easy to consider the best and worse case scenarios. Regarding the best case scenario, as I noted in a previous paper a new power in Syria could at first seem intoxicating. A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty, the weakening of both Hezbollah and Hamas, and an increasingly isolated Iran (as Syria is her only significant ally in the region) are all potential benefits of a post Assad Syria.

However, it goes without saying that such developments would probably only ensue in the event of a moderate, pro-west faction, coming to power in Damascus. Considering the first two statements of the new Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt involved wanting closers ties with Iran and reviewing the peace treaty with Israel it is simply not plausible to think the Islamists would be the “pro-peace party.”

Now if we look at the potential worse case scenario regarding a post Assad regime we are suddenly faced with perhaps the most calamitous period in modern
Middle Eastern history since the late 1960s. The absolute worse outcome would be a war between Israel on one hand and Syria, Egypt, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on the other. As unlikely as this seems it should be noted that most recent wars in the region have originated from stupid catalysts from the Kuwait ambassador telling Saddam Hussein that Iraqi women are whores, to Israel bombing Lebanon into rubble over the kidnapping of two soldiers. Being more realistic, negative effects would include an increase of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, closer ties with Iran, and perhaps Syria joining Iran’s attempts in constructing nuclear weapons. Obviously, all this implies the Muslim Brotherhood or some other extremist faction winning power in Damascus.

While it is too simplistic to suggest a pro-west faction would result in near perfect relations with Israel and the West and an Islamic faction would result in all out war, there is little doubt that depending upon who takes power in Syria we could see a vastly more stable, or chaotic, Middle East. Either way, no matter who succeeds Assad, relations are likely to be amiable at first considering they will probably need Western assistance to rebuild Syria.

However, as cautious as the author is about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Syria, one should not conclude that he has the least amount of sympathy for the Assad regime, nor that he would prefer it to the Muslim Brotherhood. Considering the current regime in Syria is likely to fall, it would be wise for the West and the Israelis to do everything to curry their favor and try to allay their fears of duplicity. While the undemocratic regimes and movements in the region have done much to warrant Western suspicion, it is also the case that Israel and the West have done just as much to warrant Muslim and Arab suspicions. While the author is not idealistic or naive enough to think that the current civil war in Syria will ultimately result in a more peaceful Middle East, perhaps it would not be a sin to hope it could.

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