Syria Goes to War

Syria is crumbling. Assad is grasping onto power. America's option: get on board the US policy train like your father—or leave. 

IT WAS only a matter of time before the revolutionary wave hit Syria. After all, the factors that have brought about dissent and rebellion in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain and to lesser extent in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are equally if not more salient in Syria: failed economics, undemocratic politics, and societal discontent.

It is hard to miss the irony of current developments in Syria. For more than forty years, the Assads’ number one priority has been to consolidate the state and maintain domestic stability. Their goal has always been to ensure that Syria is stable internally (even if it meant building a police state) so it can effectively deter external threats and fight Israel. Yet by blocking political access to the majority of Syrians and abusing the riches of the country, all the Assads did was undermine long-term stability and plant the seeds of societal revolution.

Indeed, the aggressive pursuit of relative strength and respect abroad would eventually come at a great cost at home. Beneath the superficial stability (created by Damascus with an iron fist), popular dissatisfaction and alienation were brewing. It finally exploded in Daraa. It later spread to Sanamein, Homs, Latakia, Hamah, and other areas.

The Assad regime faces by far the most serious threat to its existence in its history. It is not difficult to explain the roots of present dissent in Syria. It all starts with bad economics. The country's economic problems, partly caused by centralized planning, systemic corruption, state intervention in the economy, and a constrained role by the private sector in economic affairs, include massive unemployment, unbalanced development, and deep inequality. But the deeper reasons for Syria’s chronic economic woes are the closed nature of the political system and the huge democratic deficit that exists in the country.

Led by President Bashar Assad (who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 following his death), the Ba’ath party has defined national politics and dominated Syrian affairs for the past five decades. The Ba’athists have been in control of Syrian society since 1963, and they have denied freedom of expression, violated human rights, and crushed political opposition.

Overall conditions favoring insurgency-minority rule, sectarian cleavages, low per capita income, weak state capacity, and foreign sanctuaries puts the country at a greater risk for civil war. Bashar’s mismanagement of the crisis so far and his defiant March 30 speech have only made things worse.

If civilian casualties start to mount and things get out of control, it may be too late for Bashar. Furthermore, should he decide to switch strategy in the event that the demonstrators regain the momentum, he could still face five potential political challengers.

First, a Sunni majority has been craving for political power for more than forty-eight years; it may accept nothing less than his departure. Second, an old enemy in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who still seeks revenge for the regime’s February 1982 massacre in Hamah, is waiting for the right moment to strike and seize power. Third, senior leaders in the Ba’ath party may well oust Bashar. Fourth, members of his own family, such as his brother-in-law Asif Shawkat, a senior intelligence officer who has important clout in the intelligence services, and his brother Maher, the commander of the presidential guard may make things difficult for him. Fifth, generals of the Syrian military could turn against him for fear of losing their many privileges in the event that a more democratic future government emerges.

Not a rosy picture.

IF THE regime in Damascus collapses and civil conflict ensues in Syria, the country’s explosion is likely to have ripple effects across the region and its network of external relations could ultimately collapse.

This can all go one of two ways.

On the positive side, Lebanon might finally break free. Syria’s intervention in Lebanese politics has always been the check on democracy. The assumption is that if regime change takes place in Damascus, Beirut would find itself in a more favorable position to fix its own problems.

Hezbollah might be weakened: The Syrian regime directly contributes to the staying power of Hezbollah. Damascus protects Hezbollah from Lebanese political rivals and supplies the group with arms to use against Israel.

Palestinian militants might lose active support: The collapse of the Syrian regime might deny Hamas a political base in Damascus. Armed Palestinian groups in Lebanon’s refugee camps, including Hamas, Fatah, and PFLP-GC could also lose a major source of political and military support, rendering them more vulnerable to pressures by Lebanese leaders to disarm.

Progress could be made on Israeli-Palestinian peace: If Syrian sponsorship of Palestinian rejectionist movements comes to an end, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would face fewer obstacles to reaching a peace agreement.

Syria’s alliance with Iran could suffer: If a new Sunni leadership emerges in Damascus, it might opt for terminating its strategic partnership with Iran and develop closer relations with Saudi Arabia instead. The regional balance of power would shift, perhaps in favor of a new arc of Sunni states including Egypt and against Shi’ite Iran and its allies. US strategic interests would be served by such a potential outcome as it could weaken Iran and undermine much of its ability to project its power to the Levant and Arab heartlands.