Accelerating unrest in Syria, with the regime scrambling to find some combination of concession and repression to stay in power, has regime change juices in the United States flowing. The Washington Post editorial page says “it is time to recognize that Syria’s ruler is an unredeemable thug—and that the incipient domestic uprising offers a potentially precious opportunity.” Elliott Abrams declares that with regimes “falling like dominoes” in the Middle East, “Syria is next.” He issues a clarion call to rid the world of the “murderous clan” and “bloody regime” of Bashar al-Assad.
This excitement is understandable, and to some extent justified. The Syria regime's intermittently bloody crackdown on protestors is a reminder of its shortage of scruples. Then there are all the other reasons this regime gives many people reasons to hate it, from its dominating role in Lebanon (and possibly the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri) to its continued association with Palestinian groups that have used terrorism. Unlike Libya, Syria has reached no agreements with the United States on matters such as terrorism and unconventional weapons. And as for opportunities, the current region-wide popular upheaval and its spread already to Syria probably represent the most threatening challenge to the regime since Assad's father seized power in a coup more than four decades ago.
The talking up of the idea of toppling Assad exhibits some of the same shortcomings, however, as earlier agitation for changes of regime elsewhere. There is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent regime, however distasteful it may be. There is overestimation of how much the policies of the country in question are specific to the incumbent regime, and thus overestimation as well of how much change in those policies would ensue from a change of regime. There is also a general failure to think much about who or what would replace the current regime.
Abrams's op-ed is a good example of these characteristics. He says absolutely nothing about what a replacement regime in Syria would look like, other than that it would be controlled by someone in Syria's Sunni majority. Yet he writes with absolute certainty about the policies of that undescribed future regime. A Sunni-dominated Syrian government, he says, “would never have” close relations with Iran and Hizballah, and Iran “will lose” its Arab ally and land bridge to Hizballah. Now, it certainly is true that sectarian divides strongly color many policies and perspectives in the Middle East, and that members of the Alawite sect to which Bashar and a disproportionate number of higher-ups in his regime belong view their religion as a form of Twelver Shi’ism as is practiced in Iran. But other influences have been at least as important in shaping the postures in question. (And by the way, I don’t recall hearing any of this kind of sectarian determinism from supporters of the Iraq War when it came to anticipating what policies could be expected from Shia majority rule in Iraq and what this would imply for Iranian influence.) The Syrian-Iranian alliance was motivated initially and primarily by common hostility toward the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and cemented through economic ties that have lasted beyond Saddam’s demise. A strategic interest in supporting Lebanese Hizballah is something else that Syria and Iran share and has not been primarily a matter of religion. Hizballah’s value to Syria has been as an instrument of influence in Lebanon (which many Syrians have never quite gotten over regarding as a chunk that never should have been taken out of Greater Syria) and as a club to hold over the head of Israel.
The very small proportion of Alawites in Syria, which is three-fourths Sunni Muslim, means that policies shaped by narrow sectarian concerns would be foolish and dangerous for a regime intent on retaining power, and the regime realizes that. In any event, Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East. The influence of Islamism, in whatever form, in Syria has nowhere to go but up if there is regime change. That would not be welcome to those in Israel and the United States who worry about any political role for Islamists.
Another item in Abrams’s bill of particulars against the Assad regime is the hospitality it extends to Hamas. This, too, is not driven by religion and certainly not by sectarian considerations—Hamas being not only Islamist but also Sunni. Instead, it is again a matter of having an ally in confronting Israel. That confrontation is highly likely to shape the attitudes and policies of almost any conceivable ruler of Syria. This is not only because of the salience of the Palestinian issue throughout the Arab world but also because Israel still occupies a piece of Syrian territory that it conquered in the 1967 war.
The status of the Golan Heights relates also to the question of how much business could be done with the “unredeemable thugs” of the current regime. In the 1990s, while Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez still ruled Syria, Israel and Syria came within a whisker of reaching a peace agreement that would include return of the Golan to Syria. Well, not quite within a whisker, but within a few meters of shoreline of Lake Tiberias. One line of analysis regarding how the current instability may shape Bashar al-Assad’s attitude toward peace negotiations is that he has an incentive to be more militant and bellicose than ever toward Israel, as a rally-round-the-flag distraction. In the absence of any apparent prospect for resuming fruitful peace talks, he might react that way. (In his opinion piece, Abrams says nothing about peace with Israel—perhaps reflecting that he, along with the current Israeli government, has little or no interest in a peace agreement involving return of the Golan Heights.) But if given the opportunity, another incentive for Bashar might be more powerful. Making Syrian territory whole again would be one of the biggest possible feathers in his cap, or the cap of any Syrian leader. He would be accomplishing something that even his father could not accomplish in thirty years of rule—sort of like George W. Bush trying to outdo his father by toppling the Iraqi dictator whom the elder Bush had left standing.
Regarding Iraq, by the way, Abrams grossly rewrites history when he refers to “thousands of American soldiers killed in Iraq with the help of the Assad regime.” In the early months of the war Damascus did facilitate the movement of militants between Syria and Iraq. But after Secretary of State Powell read the Syrians the riot act and the Syrians themselves came to realize that a wave of Sunni extremism in western Iraq wasn’t in their own interests (hey, they’re Alawites—remember?) they stepped back from such assistance. For years now, any continued infiltration across the Syrian-Iraqi border has been more a problem of Syrian capability than of Syrian intentions. That problem will continue to face anyone who comes to power in Damascus.
There is, fortunately, not much talk so far in the United States of a fourth war in Syria to go along with our third war in Libya (although there are some who do not seem bothered by the prospect of such a spread of U.S. commitments). The uncertainty of Assad’s grip on power, however, is likely to present the Obama administration with some difficult choices in the near future. As the administration deals with pressures to seize an opportunity and add its own shoving to any effort to topple Assad, it needs to avoid getting swept up in the excitement and to keep a clear head about what difference regime change in Syria would and would not make.