Damascus rules

Syria’s location and geopolitical alliances means that the fate of the Assad regime bears heavy implications for Israel. While on the outset, a weakened Assad may perhaps be better than either deposition or triumph, Syria’s massive arsenal and connections with Hizbullah make this a formidable scenario.

Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One scenario is that in a couple of months, we may look back at what happened in Syria in late April and early May and dryly summarize that Bashar al-Assad weathered the storm through Syria’s brief but bloody quasi-uprising. Aside from worldwide condemnation, a few harmless sanctions and unpleasant reactions in the upheaval’s aftermath, Assad remains relatively unscathed, having learned from two contrasting precedents: Hama rules and Cairo rules.
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In the first instance, Hama rules dates back to 1982 when Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, killed anywhere between twenty to thirty thousand Muslim Brothers in the city of Hama, thereby preserving his regime’s Alawite power-structure. By contrast, in Egypt, former president Hosni Mubarak chose not to employ brute force (or was prevented by the military from doing so) and lost his grip on power, only to be shamed into submission, internally exiled and now on the verge of indictment.
Conversely, another, more hopeful alternative, is that hindsight may lead us to conclude that events in Deraa - and perhaps even in Hama and Damascus in May 2011 reshaped the Middle East.
Admittedly, with the way things are unfolding in Syria in the last couple of days it seems more likely that the first scenario will prevail. But this is the Middle East and stranger things have happened. If Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and even Libya are any indicators, Assad may be on borrowed time.
Don’t be fooled by Bashar al-Assad’s degree in Ophthalmology, the time he spent in London, the Italian suits he wears or even his early disinclination to govern Syria. Don’t be fooled either by the asinine profile Vogue magazine did in February on the lovely Asma al-Assad, portraying her as some Syrian version of a hip Rosa Parks. Nevertheless, as much as I anticipate the next Victoria’s Secret catalogue (rumor has it that a certain Mrs. Ahmadinejad will grace its pages), I am much more interested in what happens in Syria. Unlike Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya or even Egypt, the fall of the current regime in Syria can radically affect the geopolitical contours of the region.
Egypt is undoubtedly important and its centrality undisputed. Yet at this point in time, aside from Mubarak’s demise, it hasn’t brought any revolutionary game-changers for the region. I still maintain that, given the circumstances and constraints, the Obama/Clinton crisis-management regarding Egypt was a just and balanced policy. President Barack Obama sacrificed Mubarak in order to save an ally, Egypt. Syria, however, is an entirely different and exponentially more complex issue which yields far-reaching opportunities and dangers in equal doses.
In another of his brilliant articles on the Arab Spring, Fouad Ajami wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that the Assad father-and-son unit is “at once an arsonist and a fireman.” An overview of Syria’s foreign policy and regional conduct in the last thirty years proves his point and looking at post Soviet Union Syria makes it even more salient. This is also where the potential implications and impact on Israel is evident.
While it is nigh impossible to either quantify the geopolitical weight a country holds in a region or to assess how its political development affects surrounding states, I would argue that, under the current conditions, Syria’s fate is monumentally significant to Israel - more so even, than Egypt’s. Notwithstanding the fact that Egypt may still be the most important Arab country, the future of the minority Alawite regime, given its geographical position bordering Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel, makes it more critical. Syria’s intricate web of ad hoc alliances includes an unholy affiliation with Iran, complex relations with Lebanon and an unsavory Hizbullah mentorship.
This brings us to the inevitable question: What is the best case scenario for Israel? Conceivably, any process that deposes tyrants, eliminates dictatorships and makes Arab societies more open is beneficial to Israel. On top of that, a moral imperative instructs us to support the demonstrators unequivocally. All nations deserve freedom, the right to vote and the ability to determine where and how they live. The realist in me despises uncertainty and has a low tolerance for instability. But both a clear triumph for Assad and an outright downfall present high levels of instability. Between his alliance with Iran and his use of Hizbullah by proxy, an Assad on the verge of collapse is a dangerous one indeed.
By default then, arguably the best outcome for Israel would be a substantially weakened, isolated, ostracized and paranoid Assad. Sounds good, right? Not really. Only in theory is this scenario pretty. Syria has a formidable arsenal in the vicinity of 30,000 missiles, most of which can reach central Israel. It also has readily available cash generated by exporting 250,000 barrels of oil a day (at $112 per barrel this amounts to $28 million a day) and of course, let’s not forget its subsidiary, Hizbullah. An endangered Alawite regime could be prone to homicidal/suicidal actions.
So despite the inevitable instability that would no doubt follow, the best case scenario for Israel would be the removal of Bashar al-Assad and the entire Alawite apparatus. The myth of “better the devil you know” is exactly that: A myth. And one that never proved favorable in international relations.
Naturally, the issue of an Israeli-Syrian deal is bound to accompany the debate here, even before Syria stabilizes one way or another. There is no disputing the strategic advantages of peace with Syria, as periodically expressed by members of the “Syria First” policy circle. Thus, it seems clear that the issue of whether there was a missed opportunity with Syria will come up forcefully. What is disputable is whether Syria was actually intent on such a deal that many in Israel, including top echelons of the military and intelligence communities, advocated with zeal and conviction.
In the 1990’s, the conventional wisdom was that Syria had made a decision in favor of peace with Israel. That has never been proven beyond doubt, although there were some indications that following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Syria may have been ripe for a deal. Yet when the then-prime minister Ehud Barak gave it a chance in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000, the Syrians, and not Barak - contrary to popular opinion in Israel, got cold feet.
Of course, all of this is up for debate and more than one analysis is legitimate. One thing, however, is beyond doubt: What happens in Syria cannot stay in Syria.
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.