Waltz with Bashar

There’s a strong chance that the Bashar al-Assad will survive the upheaval because unlike in other Arab countries, the voices of protest in Syria are not united. But if the unrest continues, Israel may be forced to deal with a scenario in which Iran intervenes on Syria’s behalf.

Supporters of Syrian President Assad in Aleppo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/George Ourfalian)
Supporters of Syrian President Assad in Aleppo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/George Ourfalian)
The developments in Syria are of far greater interest to Israel than those unfolding in most of the other Arab states which are in revolt. Needless to say, this is due to Syria’s status as being the enemy next door, and events taking place there affect both the political and combative spheres of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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The relative quiet in the Syrian streets during the last week seems to indicate that the situation is stabilizing. While drawing any conclusions at this point is certainly premature, it is still possible to outline some interim thoughts.
The opposition facing President Bashar al-Assad does not appear to be as overwhelming as the opposition witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya. While on an economic front Assad failed spectacularly, he fared rather well from an international standpoint.
Even though many Syrians are still impoverished and unemployment remains high, the country is far less isolated than it was in the past - both regionally and globally. The Syrians now benefit from excellent relations with Turkey; they greatly improved their relations with Jordan and strengthened their position in Lebanon. Syria was instrumental in replacing Lebanon’s former PM Saad Hariri with Najib Azmi Mikatim, a pro-Syrian politician who has a normal relationship with Assad.
All these factors mean that Syria is not as dependent on Iran as it was only three or four years ago.
While the internal issues, including economic, social and human rights, are definitely working against Assad, his international record serves to balance it out. Most of the international community is still supporting the president, and this may result in Assad’s regime surviving. Furthermore, the rebels in Syria are touting vastly different and often conflicting agendas, which only aids in strengthening Assad’s chances. The Kurds in the north are demanding their cultural rights as a minority, the Islamists want to see a more religious Syria and at the same time, human rights activists dream of a free country.
If Assad does survive this mix-bag of protests, it is unlikely that a radically different Syria will emerge. Even if the rebels, along with Syria’s newest ally, Turkey, force Assad to introduce reforms, it will not be to the point of revolutionary change.
But even a mildly reformed Assad will eventually have to alter his attitude towards the Americans. Contrary to what transpired with regards to Libya and Egypt’s leaders, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, the US decided to "gamble" on Assad. The Americans seem to view the dictator as less brutal and more open to Western tastes. For his part, Assad knows he cannot easily forget the US’s benevolence. So while Gaddafi’s supporters are scrambling away from the international coalition’s aircraft, Assad carries an American warranty in his pocket that guarantees the US will stay away.
As the saying goes, one cannot predict what will happen tomorrow in the Middle East, and future Fridays may only bring more troubles for Assad. However, the general sense is that the rebels will not manage to exile the army from Syria’s political arena. The security forces will continue to control the country and it seems very likely that Basher al-Assad will remain in power.
As for Israel, an ongoing revolt in Syria is very worrying, particularly because it brings with it the threat of Iranian intervention. Such a scenario could mean that Iranians will establish a presence in Syria’s southern border with Israel. In addition, the lack of a unified decision-making process on the part of the Syrians could trigger a Palestinian type of situation, in which case any chances for peace with Israel will certainly be eliminated.
The writer is the founder and chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society.