Savir's Corner: Syria after Assad

In many ways Syrian rebellion is most significant symptom of Arab Spring, given the fully totalitarian, nationalistic nature of the Assad regime.

Assad making speech 311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Assad making speech 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Like Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi, Bashar Assad is doomed to fall from power. Few experts would have predicted that the ironclad dictatorship would have such furious open opposition in the streets of all major Syrian cities, including Damascus. Perhaps never before in their modern history, since Syria’s independence in 1946, have its people shown such courage as in facing the brutal army and security forces, who have killed more than 5,000 of their own thus far.
The world stands idly by, with the exception of seemingly ineffective sanctions against the regime. Russia still threatens to veto any meaningful measures or intervention. The Arab world has turned against Syria – most Arab countries broke their diplomatic relations with Damascus and the Arab League has sent meaningless observers. But even this was unimaginable in dealing with the “mother of Arab nationalism.”
In many ways the Syrian rebellion is the most significant symptom of the Arab Spring, given the fully totalitarian and nationalistic nature of the Assad regime.
Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite minority (the Alawites are roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population, Sunnis are roughly 74%), is in unsplendid isolation, left with a sole ally, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his dictatorial brother in Tehran. Even Erdogan’s Turkey has turned away from its alliance with Damascus, calling to “stop the massacre.”
The end of Bashar’s rule is a matter of time, and the real question is what will follow? Such an analysis is necessary to define the implications of a possible shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.
It is likely that after the fall of Assad, we will witness a coalition of forces taking over. Mostly Sunni leaders, relatively liberal opposition groups and the elements of the army who defected from Assad.
Syria’s two main opposition groups have already signed an agreement for setting up a democracy. The first aim of the transitional powers will be to recreate social cohesion, which may be possible given the vast Sunni majority and Syrian-Arab nationalism. There does not seem to be any real danger from Syrian fundamentalism, as such elements are less significant in Syria than in Egypt, for example.
Syria is a more secular country. Iran’s chief allies in Damascus, the Hamas leadership, are already on the run.
The real challenge, as in all post-revolution countries, will be dealing with the economic crises, exacerbated by political crisis. The Bashar Assad regime did in a very limited and insufficient way try to introduce minor reforms, such as privatizing the banks, but will be leaving the country in shambles with declining oil production and tourism revenues, and high unemployment of about 15%. At the core of the problem is that Syria under the Assads, which as opposed to Egypt, does not suffer from overpopulation, is a pariah state.
Unlike Sadat in Egypt and his successor Mubarak, the Assads did not opt for peace; as a result they had no economic relations to speak of with the United States, and limited relations with the EU.
Most of Syria’s income comes from the Arab world, mainly Iraq. Thus, the main challenge for a new Syrian regime is to turn to the West by adhering to greater social openness and respect for human rights, and opening the road to peace talks with Israel.
Syria has two powerful neighbors, to the east Iran, and to the north Turkey.
The Assad regime made a clear choice – the mullahs of Tehran. As recently as 2010, Assad had a summit with his allies, Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, creating an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis and emphasizing “brotherly ties.”
Syria was the route through which Iran armed Hezbollah in order to rule Lebanon. At the time, the other fundamentalist partner in policy and ideology, Khaled Mashaal of Hamas, also belonged to that axis. Mashaal has already understood that this axis is broken, and intends to move to Jordan. The Iranians too understand that the balance of power in the region is gradually shifting.
The new Syrian regime will most probably try to restore relations with the West, initially through Ankara and without breaking completely with Tehran. From there it will find itself approaching France, its former colonizer, and the EU, and ultimately the United States.
This challenge should be welcomed by a West shamefully paralyzed despite the brutal butchering carried out by the Assad regime. Such a turn may very well have the support of Syria’s young generation, who after Assad may “discover” social media (with which some are already illegally familiar).
The median age of Syrians is 21.9 years. This is a young population seeking employment and modernity, among them many young women who have played an important role in the demonstrations, such as 32-year-old humanrights activist Catherine al-Talli, who was detained by the regime and has many young followers and supporters.
This may very well be the trend, but it risks being a gradual and unstable process.
It is a cardinal challenge for the Western powers to strengthen the young forces of democratization in the Arab world. The main support from the West should be economic and aimed at the young generation. In the same way an aid mechanism was established for the Palestinians after Oslo, one should be structured in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, advancing nation-building projects and high-quality and affordable education for the young of the region.
Syria also has a neighbor to the south, Israel. I have had the the privilege to lead our negotiation team during the Wye Plantation talks with Syria in 1995- 1996, under the courageous leadership of then-prime minister Peres. My impression then, and my opinion today, is that while the Syrians are obsessed with the the full return of the Golan Heights, they are fairly pragmatic when it comes to future “normal peaceful relations,” as defined by them, emphasizing trade and tourism. Thus, Israel should prepare itself for the possible shift in power in the region, keep quiet for the moment, and keep all options open, including a return to the Rabin formula, according to which “Israel is ready for a full withdrawal from the Golan, provided that all our peace, security and water needs are met.”
We tend to say, “From the north an evil shall break forth...” (Jeremiah, 1:14), yet this time, the fall of Assad may result in opportunity breaking forth from the north. When it does, we should not miss it, despite Netanyahu’s traditional alarmism over shifting sands. Israel can and must become a strong and peaceful player in the new balance of forces in the Middle East in the years to come. We must prepare for the worst, and work for the best.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.