Syria on the brink

What should be clear, though, is that a chaotic, violent transition of power would not be in Syria’s interest – or Israel’s.

Pro-Assad Syrian protesters 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana/Handout)
Pro-Assad Syrian protesters 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana/Handout)
Early on Wednesday morning, it was reported that elements of the Free Syrian Army had launched attacks at several locations 3 kilometers northeast of downtown Damascus.
This represents the latest and most serious threat to the 40-year rule of the Assad family.
It is a welcome development, since Syria, and particularly the Assads, constitute Israel’s oldest and most implacable adversary on its borders.
It is important, however, to stress the caution with which we might welcome the demise of the Syrian regime.
There is good reason to heed the words of warning from the Russian Foreign Ministry: “If the Syrian government is unable to hold onto power, there is a high probability that radicals and representatives of terrorist organizations will become entrenched.”
The latest threat to the Assad regime is multi-faceted, which is precisely why it should be taken seriously.
On Saturday, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership. This was an important milestone; previously, only Egypt and Libya had been suspended – the former because it made peace with Israel in 1979 and the latter because of Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters.
The suspension of Syria seems to have provided Jordan’s King Abdullah with the institutional support to call on Monday directly for Bashar Assad’s resignation.
“If Bashar had the interest of his country [in mind], he would step down. But he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” Abdullah said.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Syria risks being sucked into a deadly and chaotic spiral.
“Nobody now expects the [Syrian] people’s demands to be met,” Erdogan said. “We all want the Syrian administration, which is now on a knife-edge, to turn back from the edge of the cliff.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday compared Syria to Libya, where Gaddafi was killed by rebels last month.
“The regime should meet the demands of its people,” he said. “The collective massacres in Syria and the bloodshed cannot continue like this.”
The Jordanians and the Turks have both been outraged by video images showing pro-Assad protesters attacking their diplomatic missions in Damascus.
The Arab League has now gone further than mere condemnation, meeting with members of the opposition Syrian National Council and imposing sanctions on Damascus.
Most countries in the region are not enamored of the current regime, which is propped up by the Alawite religious minority from which the Assad family comes.
From Israel’s point of view, Syria remains the last of the frontline states that is a credible, powerful enemy. Unlike Lebanon, which is a relatively weak country whose main menace to Israel comes via the Hezbollah militia it hosts, Syria represents a more traditional strategic threat.
Syria has served as a base for several extremist Palestinian groups, and as the conduit for arms flowing from Iran to Hezbollah, which is why Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah was so bloody.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned that toppling the Assad regime could result in the rise of a radical Islamic one or create a vacuum in which terrorist groups would thrive. This statement could be interpreted as deliberate fear-mongering, because Syria is a long-time Russian ally. But the Russian view should be taken seriously, because it might be accurate.
Israel already has a volatile southern border with Egypt and a fragile northern border with Lebanon.
Assad’s fall could result in chaos along the Syrian border, which could destabilize the region and put greater strain on the security forces.
The leader of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, is an erudite Parisian academic who has said that the Syrian people are supportive of “resistance” against Israel. Very little is known about the rebel commander, Col. Riad al-As’aad, except that he is a Sunni, like many of the Syrian Army defectors who have rallied to his flag.
What should be clear, though, is that a chaotic, violent transition of power would not be in Syria’s interest – or Israel’s.