With mass protests in Syria showing no signs of abating despite a crackdown that led to 1,400 deaths and 12,000 refugees, President Bashar Assad may be losing his grip on the country, paving the way for al-Qaida or other Islamic groups to emerge as an important force, analysts say.
“The more liberal elements will lose as time goes on. The more hard-nosed Islamists will gain ground. They will get more and more militant. We could be at risk of a replay of the Iraqi situation,” Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian and founder of Pillar Seven, a regional communications consultancy, told The Media Line.
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Nematt spoke on the sidelines of a conference under the auspices of President Shimon Peres last week. Syria has become a source of serious concern to both Israel and the US, who once quietly backed Assad both as bastion against disorder and a takeover by Islamic groups even as he allied Syria with Iran.
Martin Indyk, vice president and foreign policy director at the Brookings Institute in Washington, said the US would have preferred that the Arab Spring never occurred, its support for human rights, freedom and democratization notwithstanding.
“The US prefers stability,” Indyk told the conference in Jerusalem. “But when it comes to Syria, the longer this goes on the more US interests suffer.”
Turkish leaders have begun changing their tune, further undermining Assad’s strength. Once close friends as Turkey sought to reach out to the Middle East, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently accused Damascus of perpetrating an “atrocity” against demonstrators. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu criticized the Syrian military action next to the border and called for “concrete steps” implementing protesters demands.
Syria and Turkey could slide into a violent confrontation, a highly-placed Turkish source told Israel’s Ha’aretz daily. Erdogan convened a meeting over the weekend with the heads of the army, intelligence service and Foreign Ministry to consider a response in the event Syrian forces attack refugee camps in Turkey.
“You see how Turkey has turned around 180 degrees,” said Nematt. “The relations have turned sour, with Turkey calling for the ouster of the regime.”
Nematt explained that the longer the crisis continues in Syria and Assad hangs on, the greater the opportunity for al-Qaida to move in at the expense of Syrians’ pushing for a secular democracy.
Assad, as well as key government, military and business allies come from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, which has ruled Syria for the past 40 years. If the majority Sunnis came to power it would be a nightmare for the privileged Alawites.
Furthermore, Syria’s sectarian split includes Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druse, Kurds, Armenians and Cirassians and more.
“In Syria, you have a minority Alawite regime ruling a majority of Sunnis and 10% Christians. This would mean, in my view and that of other analysts, that the situation in Syria today represents an ideal place for al-Qaida to move in,” Nematt said.
“My fear is that now, if this standoff between the regime and the uprising and protests continue, even if the Syrian regime succeeds in crushing the revolt, we are going to see a situation where al-Qaida will be part of the game,” Nematt said.
Another factor influencing events was the increasingly high-profile Iranian intervention in Syria, which Nematt said was an “added incentive for al-Qaida and Salafis and Jihadists to move to Syria because there they have a better chance of the Sunnis taking the upper hand compared to Iraq where the majority is Shiite.”
However, Emmanuel Sivan, co-author of Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World, disagreed, saying al-Qaida only flourished in failed states like Somalia, Yemen and, perhaps soon, Libya.
“Syria as far we know is not a failed state. It is just a power struggle going on there,” Sivan said.
Ehud Ya’ari, an Israeli Arab affairs analyst who has close ties with Israel’s intelligence community, said the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement is aiding Assad’s regime and had sent advisers to train Syrian forces on how to operate in densely built up urban areas.
But he dismissed speculation that Hezbollah might spark a confrontation with Israel along the Lebanon border as a bid to relieve pressure from Assad.
One of the key unknowns is the Syrian army, whose lower ranks are mainly Sunnis and Kurds. Aside from one major incident that reportedly saw over 100 security personnel killed in an ambush by alleged defectors, no major defections have been reported by upper echelon officers. This is largely because the Assad regime has deployed only a few of the staunchly loyal divisions of Alawites or the “Shabiha” special forces controlled by the Assad family.
“They didn’t deploy all of the army. They cannot deploy all of the army because they fear the result that happened in Egypt and Tunisia, when the army was ordered in and the military commanders said 'no way', that would mean the end of the regime,” Nematt said.