ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Upholding Assad 17.10.05

Upholding Assad

17 October 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

The Americans very much want to dump Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Alawite dominated Ba’ath regime, especially after the implications that Damascus was directly involved in the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. You can reshuffle the deck but you are never sure what hand you will draw next. It is one thing to throw out a regime either by force or diplomatic pressure, it is another to try to determine who will replace the previous rulers. The Ba’ath (secular Arab nationalists professing socialism) remain in power for over 40 years with the Assad family (especially father Hafez) dominating the past 35.

Over the decades the Syrians gave their full support to terrorism, especially of the Palestinian variety. Today Damascus is the hub of Middle Eastern terror activity with Islamist and secular groups headquartered in the Syrian capital. Besides the Palestinians, the Iraqi insurgency uses Syria as its back yard and launching site for attacks against the US and the moderate pro-west regime in Baghdad. Washington is furious and advocates liquidating the Assad regime in the hope of crushing terrorism.

But the approach is too simplistic. The US would need to get a physical grip on Syria, meaning the dispatch of 100,000 troops or more. Washington is tied down in Iraq for 2.5 years doing battle with the pro-Saddam Hussein Sunnis and Islamic fundamentalists in an increasingly unpopular war. The Bush Administration is hopeful that free elections and the development of a dependable democratic regime with a like minded police force and army will allow for an “early” US withdrawal and a stable, non-threatening Iraq. But such an outcome appears far from likely. The US can look forward to being in Iraq for quite a while.

Israel has made it clear to the Americans that direct intervention in Syria would be folly. Syria could break into pieces. The majority Sunnis (65%) would split between the religious fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood and pro El-Qaeda on the one hand and those who would continue supporting the Alawite dominated secular Ba’ath on the other. Previously these two had it out in February 1982 when Hafez Assad put down a revolt by the Brotherhood in Hama, killing tens of thousands and then plowing down several neighborhoods. In addition to the Alawite 12%, there are Christians with about the same number, Druze with some 4%, Beduin and Kurds.

Syria is a polyglot of different ethnic/religious groups controlling specific areas within the country and making alliances to survive. The secular Ba’ath regime (no matter how brutal) was able to unite most by discounting religion and awarding equal rights (or lack of) to all. The only serious challenge is the religious fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood (or World Jihad) with allies outside of Syria. Should the Ba’ath be eliminated, the Islamists are the likely candidate to take over in the ensuing free for all endangering Western interests and reactivating the Eastern Front on the Golan between Israel and Syria. Iran, friendly with Syria as it is, could certainly claim victory. Any sparks of Iraqi democracy would be seriously undermined and Islamists worldwide will be reinvigorated. This is not the only scenario, but definitely a reasonable one.

Israel is urging the US to go slow, weaken Assad but not eliminate him and thereby leave a power vacuum. Better to deal with a certain amount of terrorism emanating from Syria than to turn the whole operation into chaos, taking a chance that the country will emerge as a full fledged terrorist state.