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.

Iraqi security and democracy could improve: Syria continues to have extensive contacts with militants (most importantly the Mahdi army) and influential politicians in Iraq (Iyad Allawi and others) who have less than democratic aspirations and whose goals do not necessarily enhance political stability and national security.

BUT ON the far-more-plentiful negative side, sectarian conflict in Syria could quickly spread, engulfing parts of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Sectarian, ethnic, and religious animosities between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Alawites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs, Christians and Muslims could flare up and destabilize the entire region.

Lebanon’s power balance could shift violently: If Damascus’s grip on Lebanon comes to an end, the power balance in that country could abruptly change, leading to armed confrontations among sectarian groups. The political dynamic that is most likely to be directly affected will be that between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Lebanese Sunnis, led by former prime minister Saad Hariri, would feel emboldened, whereas the Shi’ites, led by Hezbollah, would sense that their relative position in the system has weakened.

A new Syrian leadership might be more radical and militant: It is not inevitable that a new Syrian leadership in Damascus would be more accommodating in foreign policy or less authoritarian in domestic affairs. In fact, there is a chance that a more assertive and militant group of Syrian nationalists could come to power and promise their constituents the return of the Golan Heights through armed conflict with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood might gain control and al-Qaeda could set up shop: The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood fought a bloody war against the Syrian regime in the early 1980s, but since then they have been ruthlessly suppressed by the state. Yet the Brotherhood still possesses considerable human resources and can mobilize supporters quickly. Even though current open source information on the Brotherhood is imperfect and dated, it is safe to say that the Islamist group is by far the most organized and powerful political opposition group inside the country. The Brotherhood likely has more support in- country than does the Egyptian variant—and it is believed to be more radical. This means that more extreme and militant elements of the Brotherhood could openly join ranks with al-Qaeda or allow it to set up shop in the country.

Sub-state militancy could no longer be under control: Syrian-sponsored sub-state militancy, whether against Israel or other rivals, has been lethal and destabilizing. But if there is one thing that could be seen in a rather “positive” light about Syrian sponsorship of militant groups in the region, it is its predictability. Should the Syrian regime collapse, sub-state militancy could proliferate across the region, becoming chaotic—and more lethal.

The Syrian Kurds could gain autonomy, which might invite Turkish military intervention: Approximately 1.7 million Kurds live in Syria. For many years the Syrian regime has sought to control their Kurdish minority by various oppressive means including an Arab belt between its Kurds and those living in neighboring Turkey and Iraq. Many Kurds living in Syria have also been denied Syrian citizenship, while others have been stripped of their basic civil liberties. Traditionally a quiet group, Syrian Kurds, like their counterparts in Turkey and Iraq, want political rights and greater autonomy. Should Syrian Kurds decide to mobilize militarily, Turkey, which has its own Kurdish problem, might intervene in Syria and fight the rebels.

IT IS dishonest to deny that US (and Israeli) strategic interests would be better served if Bashar the president, not his regime, stayed in power. Better the devil you know. The United States and Israel simply cannot afford to wait and see which new leadership may soon emerge in Damascus. Washington knows Bashar well and it knows how rational and predictable he is in foreign affairs. If he wants to survive politically and save his legacy, Washington should have this deal ready for him—US political support for his effort to stay in power and rescue his presidency in return for the following: he split with the regime, implement all the necessary reforms he proposed, allow for free and fair national elections, and gradually join the pro-Western camp like his father did prior to the 1991 Gulf War.

Some analysts have argued that it is naive to expect Bashar to be able or willing to reform, noting that his March 30 speech is yet another indicator of his resistance to change. That may be true, but if things escalate and demonstrators regain the momentum and encircle him, Bashar, the pragmatic leader he is, might have no choice but to comply. If he accepts Washington’s deal, the United States would get the best out of an imperfect situation: leverage with a future government in Damascus, something the Assads have succeeded in denying Washington for a long time.

Many Syrians may feel betrayed and offended by even the thought of the United States providing Bashar with political support. But many others (hopefully the majority), anxious about the potential partition of their country, sectarian conflict, and political instability, could tolerate such an arrangement. After all, large numbers of Syrian youth love him and many still believe that he has reformist intentions. If Bashar succeeds in dismantling his regime and stays in power, Washington would be both supporting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people and protecting its own security interests.