Conundrum in Damascus

How will the unrest in Syria unfold? The experts are hard-pressed to forecast.

syrian protester_521 (photo credit: MAJED JABER / REUTERS)
syrian protester_521
(photo credit: MAJED JABER / REUTERS)
IN MID-MARCH, THE TURMOIL sweeping the Arab world touched on Israel’s northeastern border.
The dusty Syrian town of Daraa, where the current wave of protests against the Assad regime began, lies on the frontier with Jordan, just 25 miles east of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Although sparked by local grievances, including a scarcity of water for agriculture, the demonstrations quickly took on regional overtones as they spread to other towns and cities with marching protesters chanting, “No Iran, no Hizballah.”
The cry was partly a call for a reordering of national priorities. But it also implied a demand for a major reorientation of Syrian foreign policy. And clearly the way the unrest affects Damascus’s relationship with the radical Iranian-led axis, which includes Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, will have significant ramifications for Israel and the region as a whole.
As the events in Syria unfolded, Israel adopted a wait-and-see attitude and a policy of strict non-intervention. With so much at stake, government ministers observed that although the situation was fraught with danger, it also contained the seeds of positive change.
The dangers to Israel are clear. The emergence of a more radical regime in Syria could mean a strengthening of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas axis. In a worst case scenario, Iran could have direct geographical access to Lebanon through a more Iran-friendly Syria. Syria’s huge stocks of missiles and chemical weapons could fall into less responsible hands. The unrest at Israel’s doorstep could spread to the Palestinian territories and to Jordan. President Bashar Assad, if he survives, or a more radical successor regime if he doesn’t, could heat up the conflict with Israel to build domestic legitimacy.
Against that, there is a huge opportunity for positive regional change if a chastened Assad, after riding out the storm, or a more moderate successor regime were to turn to the West with a program for democratic reform and a call for economic aid to make it work.
Either way, that would mean a severe weakening of the Iranian axis and an opening for peacemaking with Israel. It could also have a positive impact on Israeli- Palestinian relations and on Israel’s regional status.
The big question at this point is will Assad survive? Most experts hold that the chances for regime change are not high. They point out that Syrian opposition groups are divided, without clear goals or leadership. On the other hand, Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect (which makes up only 13 percent of the population), can count on the unqualified backing of the Alawite-controlled military.
Moreover, he has retained the support of key elements of the Sunni majority (74 percent of the population) by nurturing Sunni business/ industrial interests and allowing the Sunni intelligentsia to flourish. According to seasoned Syria watchers, there is no sign so far of any cracks in this Alawite officer- Sunni elite governing alliance. Moreover, unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Assad has not been pressed to step down by the US and its Western allies. On the contrary, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called him “a reformer.” Therefore, the experts say, a buoyed Assad is not about to surrender power without a fight, which, as long as the army remains loyal, he is almost certain to win.
But even if Assad remains in office, the future course of Syrian regional policy is hazy. Some experts believe he might move closer to the West after making democratizing concessions; others argue that he is more likely to tighten relations with Iran after using force in a nationwide clampdown. The same uncertainty pertains to potential successor regimes: Moderate reformers might turn to the West, whereas radical Islamists would inevitably move even closer to Iran.
THE PROTESTS IN DARAA, INItially focused on water supplies, unemployment and land-sale red tape, gathered momentum after security personnel arrested high school pupils for painting anti-government graffiti and escalated sharply after armed forces fired on demonstrators, leaving about 50 dead.
Fueled by the harsh government response and the success of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the demonstrations spread to cities like Latakia, Homs, Tel and Hama and to Qamishli in the Kurdish area in the north.
Crucially, the turnout in the two biggest urban areas, Aleppo and Damascus, each with populations of over two and half million, has so far been sparse. But as the protests swelled in other centers, the regime used more lethal force and made sweeping arrests, including dozens of leading activists in Daraa and Latakia. By early April the death toll had risen to over 80.
The Assad family has a reputation for harsh retaliation against attempts to challenge its authority. In 1982, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, ordered the army to fire on rebellious Muslim Brothers in the city of Hama, killing over 20,000. Bashar Assad forcibly put down a Kurdish uprising in 2004, and after his reelection in 2007 (with a majority of 97.6 percent) launched a campaign of incarceration and torture against political dissidents.
Before the outbreak of the current disturbances, there were an estimated 3,000 political prisoners in Syria. In 2009, Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide, gave Syria the worst possible grade for political rights and the next worse for civil liberties.
The repressive nature of the Syrian regime has led to the formation of would-be democratizing organizations by Syrian exiles abroad, the Washington-based Reform Party of Syria and the rival Syrian National Council, and the European-based National Salvation Front founded by the former Sunni vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam.
For a while during the Bush II years, Farid Ghadry, leader of the Reform Party of Syria, was the darling of the neo- Conservatives in Washington.
But none of these groups has been able to achieve either a modicum of international standing or a foothold in Syria itself. Experts say they could jump on a bandwagon of reform in Syria, but are in no position to lead it. Inside Syria, a coalition of Islamists, Kurds and secular liberals signed the “Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change” in October 2005. But many of its leaders have since been arrested.
In a long-awaited address to parliament in late March, Assad made it clear that he had no intention of instituting significant democratic reforms. Whereas close aides had intimated that he was considering abrogating the 1963 emergency regulations, extending press freedoms and even allowing the establishment of political parties to rival the ruling Ba’ath party, Assad pointedly made no reference to any of this. Reforms, he argued, should not come to satisfy a fashion or in response to pressure, but only if they were intrinsically necessary. On the contrary, reform in response to pressure would be a sign of weakness and would only hasten his political demise.
Instead, Assad blamed an American- Israeli conspiracy for the unrest, arguing that foreign agents were inciting the innocent masses, a claim intended to legitimize the use of force. In effect, Assad was offering the Syrian people a continuation of a longstanding “social contract” whereby the autocratic regime provides stability in return for which the people surrender most of their civil liberties. In Assad’s view, the Syrian people faced a stark choice: They could have stability, if the protests stopped, or a Libyan-like civil war, if they did not.
ISRAELI EXPERTS DIFFER OVER what it would take to bring Assad down and over the extent to which the current situation could lead to a renewal of Israel- Syria peace talks. However, all agree that the way the events in Syria play out could have a momentous effect on the region.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and one of the country’s leading Syria scholars, maintains that if Assad falls or is forced to endure a long period of instability, the big losers will be Iran and its proxies. “Syria is the cornerstone of the pro-Iranian axis. A weakening of Assad’s regime, not to speak of its falling, would be a heavy blow to Iran, Hizballah and Hamas,” he wrote in a guest column in the “Yedioth Ahronoth” daily. According to Rabinovich, Iran has so far been one of the main beneficiaries of the regional turmoil – with the fall of its great enemy Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Shiite uprising in Bahrain, the pressure on the Saudi regime and the deflection of world attention from Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program.
However, a weakened Assad or the emergence of a new Western-leaning regime in Damascus would be a huge blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. Therefore, Rabinovich believes the Iranians might press Assad to heat up the border with Israel, in an attempt to save his regime by unifying the Syrian people against the common enemy.
Other experts, however, argue that Assad will think twice before getting involved in hostilities with Israel. “Assad has his own military calculus. He is not under Iran’s thumb,” says the Hebrew University’s Moshe Maoz. “And he knows that going to war with Israel would be disastrous for Syria and his regime.”
Maoz, the author of several books on Syria, insists that Assad is likely to survive without having to embark on foreign adventures, mainly because of his sure grip on the armed forces. “Like his father, Bashar Assad has carefully placed his own people everywhere,” Maoz tells The Report. “And although there are Alawites who see themselves as Bashar’s enemies, they fear the moment he falls they could be subject to massacre by the Sunni majority.”
Maoz acknowledges that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized potential opposition force in Syria. But he maintains that they do not have the political following or the military power to mount a successful rebellion. “They can preach rebellion in the mosques. But they don’t have the arms to carry it out,” he insists. “And I don’t see Bashar giving in and stepping down without a fight. For him it is a battle for survival of the family, the tribe, the sect.”
Maoz adds that unlike some other Arab dictators, Assad is not universally hated.
He has benefited from a well-oiled machine of indoctrination, through which generations of Syrians have been educated in a spirit of patriotic loyalty to the regime.
The Assads even opened special Koran schools in the early 1980s in a bid to create a more moderate all-embracing brand of Islam that could include the Alawites, whom some Sunni Muslims regard as infidels.
If Assad manages to survive and stabilize the situation, Maoz believes he might move closer to the West and a peace deal with Israel. Assad, he says, has traditionally followed a two-pronged foreign policy, maintaining ties with the West, while keeping a foot firmly planted in the Iranian camp. Now, to meet domestic demands for a more open society and a better standard of living, he may tilt more towards the West.
“If he remains in power, he might take a more pragmatic approach, looking for Western economic aid and for negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan, which is important to him for strategic and emotional reasons,” he declares.
OTHER SYRIA SCHOLARS REJECT the Maoz thesis. Tel Aviv University’s Eyal Zisser argues that for Assad and the Alawites the axis with Iran takes precedence over all other foreign policy considerations. “If we were to have an Egyptian-style popular revolution in Syria, it would be against the existing status quo, including the alliance with Iran. The new regime would probably try to get closer to the West. But if Asad survives, the radical axis suits him fine,” Zisser tells The Report.
Zisser, author of “Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power,” is convinced that Assad will fight to the bitter end to survive, but will not allow any meaningful reforms. “He can talk about giving the people freedom. And he can make promises. But as soon as he allows genuine freedom, he will fall,” Zisser asserts.
In Zisser’s view, the outcome of the power struggle in Syria will depend not so much on the army’s loyalty to Assad as on the numbers of young Syrians looking for a different future who take to the streets. “In Cairo, millions took to the streets and brought down the regime. In Damascus, so far only a few hundred have come out in a city of 2.5 million. But if the millions come out, even Assad’s army won’t be able to put them down,” he contends. In any event, Zisser predicts a relatively long period of instability in Syria in which any thought of peacemaking with Israel will be firmly shelved.
Alon Liel, Chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, posits a more optimistic scenario. He argues that if Assad survives, it will be largely due to the support he has received from the West, which has treated him with kid gloves. In that event, he is likely to feel beholden to the West and to see in it the answer to his domestic troubles. Moreover, in order to ensure continued Western support, he will have to make significant reforms to meet not only domestic demands, but the demands of the international community that will have saved him.
If this is the way events unfold, Liel sees a “double opportunity” for Israeli-Syrian peacemaking, which could give both sides not only long-term strategic advantages, but also significant short-term tactical gains. “With everything that’s going on in the Middle East today, Syrian negotiations with Israel under American, Turkish or French aegis would give Assad a form of legitimacy no other Arab leader today enjoys,” he avers. “From the Israeli perspective, the danger of a UN Resolution in September recognizing a Palestinian State in the 1967 borders is great. Israel desperately needs to do something to alter that time frame. And talks with Syria today could do just that.”
But for all his optimism in putting a finger on the opportunity, Liel has little faith in the parties actually seizing it. “We have missed so many opportunities in the past, why wouldn’t we miss another one?” he concludes.