The importance of being Bashar

With Syria's Assad on the brink of collapse, who will be the winners and who are the losers in the Middle East?

Hafez Assad enjoys a chuckle with Gaddafi in 1977
Douglas Davis
On 25 April 2011 10:58

Over the past couple of months, the Arab Spring has claimed at least three notable scalps – Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and (almost) Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The protesters have also drawn in NATO, ostensibly to protect the civilian population but more accurately to topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi

Few events, however, will have a more profound effect on the region than the fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whose minority Alawite regime has been rocked by another weekend of bloodletting.

Unseating Assad will not be easy. The Alawites, nominally a branch of Shia Islam, represent just 12 per cent of Syria’s dominant Sunni population. Yet they have run Syria for the past 40 years and have retained an iron grip on power – first under Hafez Assad and then under his son, Bashar – by exercising total control over every aspect of society and, when necessary, by brute force. 

The Alawites not only constitute the political elite of Syria, but also monopolise the levers of power in the military, security, intelligence, professional, business and economic establishments. There are currently reports of violent struggles between nascent reformers and traditional hard-liners within these elites. But whoever prevails, they will not easily concede their positions of power, preferment and privilege. 

That might already be out of their control. But while the outcome is uncertain, it is clear that Syria will not be the same again. The fall of the Assad regime will have significant domestic implications (the successor regime will likely be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood), but even if the regime is merely weakened, albeit briefly, the impact will be felt throughout the region.

The Syrian unrest is already placing a strain on the Syria-Iran-Lebanon axis. In Lebanon, Iran’s financial aid and military supplies have combined with Syria’s logistical support to propel the minority Shia movement Hezbollah – the Shia Party of God – into a position of political and military dominance. However, unrest in Syria, and the weakening of the Assad regime, is perceived to have weakened Hezbollah. And this has already emboldened Hezbollah’s opponents, opening up the old sectarian wounds and raising again the spectre of civil war. 

Evidence of the growing sectarian divides in Lebanon could be detected in an unusually defiant speech earlier this month by former Sunni Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, who asserted that Hezbollah’s Iranian-supplied weapons presented not so much a threat to Israel as to Lebanon's own independence and sovereignty.

If Hezbollah is perceived to be weakened, so, too, is the influence of Iran – and not only in Lebanon but also in the Palestinian territories, particularly Gaza, where Hamas has also been a beneficiary of Iranian largesse. 

Across another border, Turkey’s anxiety levels have also been raised by the instability in Syria, which Ankara regards as the key to its ambitious Arab policy. Turkish Prime MinisterRecep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been promoting Turkey’s interests in the Arab world by cooling relations with Israel while actively seeking, via Damascus, to stabilise the region through economic ties. 

centrepiece of these endeavours has been the creation of an economic bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The injection of Turkish capital and technological know-how has already breathed life into the alliance, but instability in Syria could torpedo the project and the fall of Assad would probably inhibit further Turkish initiatives.

On another front, the withdrawal of Turkey from the Arab arena would boost Egypt’s post-Mubarak ambitions to regain the undisputed leadership of the Arab world. Already, there is talk in Cairo of opening the Rafah crossing to permit the free movement of goods and people into an out of Gaza. There is also talk, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood, of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel. 

The toppling of Assad might also persuade Iran to seek a new Arab partner, and there are suggestions that it will turn to an old enemy (and fellow Shia state) Iraq, to fill Syria’s shoes.

The fall of the Alawite regime would be likely to unpick a complex network of relations throughout both Arab and non-Arab parts of the region, opening opportunities – and risks – for all of Syria’s many former partners.

The only state which perceives no good options in a post-Assad Syria is Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu answered somewhat cryptically when asked whether he believed the collapse of the Assad regime was in Israel’s interest: “Any answer I give you wouldn’t be a good one,” he responded. “We’d like to see everywhere, including in Syria, the genuine emergence of democracy. That’s no threat to any of us.”

The reality is that Israelis have mixed feelings about Syria. True, it has played a pivotal role in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. But while Syria has been a sworn enemy of Israel, it has been a reliable enemy. Syria has maintained quiet along the ceasefire lines with Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It has survived conflicts between Israel and both Hamas and Hezbollah. And it has survived Israel’s bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.

But a power shift in Damascus could radically alter the calculus – for Israel and for many others in the region.

Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post

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