What to do with Syria

The world should side with the Syrian rebels and make a real effort to help them oust President Bashar Assad.

August 28, 2013 21:43
"Friends of Syria" meeting in Doha.

"Friends of Syria" meeting in Doha 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The world should side with the Syrian rebels and make a real effort to help them oust President Bashar Assad. I’m aware that’s quite a bold statement to make, after all, a rebel-led Syria is full of uncertainties. Which rebel group would dominate? What would that group’s policy be toward Israel and the West? But we must compare the uncertainties of a rebelheld Syria with the certainties of a victorious Assad.

If Assad wins, he will find himself in great debt to Hezbollah. After all, Hezbollah helped protect and move some of Assad’s most vulnerable weapons, including the unconventional kind. More importantly, the tide of war changed in Assad’s favor thanks to Hezbollah’s entry in vital battles like those over the city of Aleppo. Assad will need to reward Hezbollah for its critical help, and Hezbollah wants the sophisticated conventional and unconventional weapons that Assad owns.

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If Assad wins, he will be right to conclude that the world will not react significantly to the use of chemical weapons, at least in certain cases, even if the US and Europe promise such significant action. Other leaders in states like Iran and North Korea will draw similar conclusions. The result is a far more dangerous world.

If Assad wins, Syria will also find itself in great debt to Iran, which gives Hezbollah its marching orders and provides Syria with vital logistical support.

The combination of debt to Iran and Hezbollah will likely cause Assad to be much more amenable to Iranian thinking concerning Israel and the West. It is reasonable to foresee Iran prodding Syria to allow Hezbollah to carry out attacks from Syria’s side of the Israeli border. Even if Assad rejects such prodding, it is highly likely he will be more open to transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon for their fight against Israel.

If Assad wins, he will have a score to settle with Israel. Israel repeatedly attacked Bashar Assad’s Syria during the war.

Leaks from US officials made it impossible for anyone in Syria or the world to believe otherwise.

These attacks caused great humiliation for Assad at critical junctures that could have cost him support from his own pro-Assad Syrians.

For all these reasons, it is likely that the new Bashar Assad won’t continue the same policy of quiet on the border with Israel that the Assad who woke up to a civil insurrection in 2011 long maintained.

For the reasons above, it is a bolder, more hostile Assad, and a stronger Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis that await us in Assad’s post-war Syria. As mentioned above, there are a lot of uncertainties in a rebel-held Syria, but its worth comparing the certainties in a rebel held Syria to the above.

If the rebels win, it is important to note that the largest groups are the secular groups and therefore domination of a new Syria is in their favor.

However, it is likely that regardless of which rebel group dominates, any new central government will be unable to provide order throughout the country.

Without a powerful central government, Syria will remain fractured between the Kurdish region, the Alawite region, and the regions under the new central government’s control.

Moreover, the fight against Hezbollah would likely continue both along the border with Lebanon and in the ethnically Alawite part of Syria. Sectarian tensions could look similar to what is happening in Iraq today.

In this chaos its possible some terrorists could operate against Israel along the border with Syria, but the main goal of all groups is likely to settle affairs at home rather than abroad.

If the rebels win, Hezbollah will find its vital bridge between Iran and itself to be collapsed. On top of the broken Iranian axis, the Kurdish region, which has enjoyed de facto autonomy since the civil war began, could be quite useful to further frustrate Iran’s proxies in Syria. Even if they don’t actively pursue such plans, they are naturally aligned away from Iran and its proxies so we can be sure they will not cooperate with Iran and are more likely to cooperate with the West. Their continued autonomy, in a fractured Syria, would in itself make Iran and Hezbollah uncomfortable.

Whether Assad wins or not, Israel’s northern border is likely to be less quiet than in the past. Given the same result between two scenarios, I choose the scenario that harms Iran and Hezbollah.

Some have said that the US should avoid intervention in Syria because it would lose popularity in Syria itself. After all, the US ousted Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, only to find the local populations totally resent the United States.

However, this is like comparing apples and oranges. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US didn’t merely bring regime change, it stayed for years as an occupier. Compare the results of local feeling toward the US with the result in Libya, where the international community ousted Gaddafi and then promptly left. Thus, the US earned the love of Libyans and kept that sentiment to this day. That is what a Syrian intervention should be like: oust Assad mainly through a support role, and promptly leave.

However, intervention or significant support for the rebels to oust Assad should be contingent on a very important requirement. The US and Europe should completely avoid serious intervention in Syria if the international community is unable to safely and quickly remove, destroy, or safely store Assad’s weapons arsenal and chemical stockpiles.

When the US changed the regime in Libya, rebel groups and others were able to access weapons caches throughout the country. These weapons were sent to the rebels of Syria, various groups in Gaza and the jihadists in the Sinai.

These weapons helped destabilize Egypt and Syria.

President Bashar Assad’s Syria holds an arsenal of 100,000 rockets and missiles.

Several thousand of these, including Scud D missiles, are considered extremely powerful and accurate. President Assad’s army also has Russianmade SS-22 medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which can carry some 120 kilograms of explosive material. Russia has also supplied Syria with its latest anti-tank missiles. And Syria has the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons (1,000 tons of chemical agents), all of which have been moved to the Alawite region of Syria for safekeeping.

The international actors who seriously contemplate intervention in Syria must know exactly where all the chemical storage sites are, where all the sophisticated missiles and rockets are stored, and have a good plan as to how to neutralize them all before they can fall into irresponsible hands.

If they lack any of these three things then we can expect these weapons to proliferate all over the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon – which already knows exactly where the weapons it wants are stored.

Thus, the rule is simple: if the US and Europe are ready to neutralize Assad’s entire arsenal of dangerous and advanced weapons, then they should oust Assad. If not, stay out of Syria.

The writer is a recent graduate with a BA in political science, and former editor-in-chief of an academic political science journal.

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