The devil you know is still the devil

Politicians and pundits are claiming that the fall of Assad's regime could damage the Middle East's stability. Comical oxymorons aside, ending Assad's tyranny could not possibly make things worse than they already are.

Syrian protesters in Daraa 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian protesters in Daraa 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Commenting on the protests in Syria, pundits both in Israel and abroad have waxed eloquent on how the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime could harm regional stability and, as one article in The New York Times suggested, “could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement.” Some even suggest that the result would be increased Iranian influence in Lebanon. Their refrain throughout: the devil you know is better than the devil that might come next.
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Poppycock.  Although it may not make things better, on every single count, the end of the Assad-led regime could not make the situation worse.
The most obvious canard is that if Assad should lose power, it would diminish prospects for peace in the foreseeable future. This assertion begs the question: if the Assad regime holds the key to peace, then what exactly prevented Assad - or his father for that matter - from unlocking that door until now? Both Assads missed numerous opportunities, the most recent being the American efforts to restart the peace process as a way to lure Syria away from its alliance from Iran. True, Bashar, like his father, is willing to take the Golan off Israel’s hands, but he is unwilling to make any significant concessions in return. And the alliance with Iran, Bashar has made clear, is non-negotiable.
The crux of the matter is that Assad is more the lock on the door to peace than its key. He knows quite well that ending the conflict would actually endanger his regime. For decades, the conflict with Israel has been the go-to justification for the decades-old “emergency laws,” which allow for the arrest and torture of political dissidents at a whim. If the conflict is over, how can Assad convince anyone that these laws are necessary?
In this regard, Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 is a telling precedent. By withdrawing, Syria lost its main pretext for its overbearing military presence there, and as a result, anti-Syrian sentiment quickly began to stir in Lebanon, eventually spreading across ideological and sectarian lines.
Refusing to make peace with Israel has also paid dividends internationally. As a poor country with scant natural resources, Syria has very few cards to play. But ever since Egypt made peace with Israel, Syria employed a hard-line stance vis-à-vis Israel which galvanized its position in the Arab world as leader of the resistance front. Consequently, making peace with Israel now will inevitably relegate it to a third-rate player on the international scene.
Some of the aforementioned commentators even like to credit the Assads with upholding the cease-fire on the Golan Heights since 1973. This decision, however, is guided primarily by the hard, cold reality that in any direct confrontation, the Syrian army would get trounced and Damascus itself would be reduced to a pile of rubble. And any future government, regardless of ideological stripe, is highly unlikely to think otherwise.
The apologists also gloss over the fact that Assad maintains this limbo state of “no war, no peace” on the Golan, because it is far more effective for him to strike Israel via Lebanon. Assad’s unflinching support of Hizbullah allows Syria to provoke Israel with minimal risk of being directly targeted. Unfortunately for the Lebanese, the price for Assad’s aggression is paid with their blood.
Indeed, under Assad, Syria constitutes Iran’s main access point to Lebanon, allowing Iran to arm Hizbullah with the some of the most advanced weaponry of any non-state militia. As a result, Hizbullah believes it can take on Israel - increasing the risk of war - and allowing Iran to become the preeminent foreign power in Lebanon.
Let’s not also overlook Assad’s dogged pursuit of a covert nuclear weapons program, which already had the region poised on the brink of war in 2007.
Finally, it is impossible to understate the degree to which Bashar and his father have undermined Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability and the prospects for long-term reconciliation amongst its many religious groups. For over thirty years, Syria has followed a strategy of using frequent, brazen public assassinations to terrorize Lebanon’s leaders, prominent personalities, and private citizens into accepting its domination of their country. In this regard, the Assads have at least proven to be equal opportunity murderers. They assassinated the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1977; two Lebanese presidents who were Maronites (Bashir Gemayel and Rene Moawad) in the 1980s; the Sunni Shaykh Hassan Khalid, who served as Mufti of the Republic, and the Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In each case, they were killed for their willingness to oppose and denounce the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
Syria’s thugs have targeted journalists and prominent writers as well. Most gruesome of all was the case of Salim al-Lawzi, editor of the newspaper al-Hawadeth, who was abducted and brutally murdered in 1980. His body was discovered with the fingers of his right hand having been dissolved in acid - a clear warning from Syria to other anti-Syrian writers. Since Syria’s formal withdrawal in 2005, this sort of blatant Mafioso-style intimidation has only become more pronounced, as it now serves as their main method of influencing policy in Lebanon. 
In short, the only thing stable here has been the Assad regime itself. Its literal interpretation of ‘cut-throat’ politics has devastated Lebanon, destabilized the region, and insured that the peace process will never succeed. Should Assad’s regime actually fall - which is, unfortunately, by no means a foregone conclusion – it will be a cause for celebration, not lamentation.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.