Thursday, 7 February 2013

After Assad

The 13-year rule of Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, is drawing to a close, although the exact nature of its demise remains, at present, uncertain. It has been a long-drawn-out process. When he took power in 2000, Bashar inherited a formidable grip on power, initiated by his father Hafez. With members of the Alawite sect placed in key positions in the ruthless secret police and the military, both organisations were tightly integrated into the ruling élite. The process of dislodging it is taking mammoth efforts which, in turn, have resulted in truly terrible humanitarian consequences.

What is now a fully-fledged civil war in Syria began in March 2011 as one manifestation of the Arab Spring, then flaring across the Arab world. In April the Syrian Army, deployed to quell the uprising, began firing on demonstrators. Opposition forces, composed originally of defected soldiers and civilian volunteers, became increasingly armed and organized, but soon opportunistic jihadist bodies, supported from outside sources, were exploiting the chaotic situation on both sides.

Assad was supported by pro-Shi’ite jihadists. When he falls, pro-Sunni extremists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), will probably gain the upper hand as the Islamists continue their own power struggles for a while. As a result, Israel may find itself facing MB régimes in two of its major Arab neighbors – Egypt and Syria.

On a more positive note, the departure of Assad will certainly represent a major blow to Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East. Syria is an integral element in Iran’s anti-Israel alliance, and the conduit through which it supplies Hezbollah with military and financial support. Which perhaps explains the current effort of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to repair fences with Egypt. After 34 years of non-contact, initiated because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Iran courted Egypt’s MB President Mohamed Morsi with a three-day visit early in February.

The occasion was not without incident. The New York Times reported that during a visit to Al-Azhar mosque and university, Egypt’s seat of Sunni scholarship, Ahmadinejad was publicly upbraided by his hosts, who accused Shi’ites of interfering in Arab countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, and of discriminating against Sunnis in Iran. Later, a protester, identified as a Syrian angered at Iran’s alliance with Syria’s president Assad, tried to hit Ahmadinejad with a shoe. Finally four people were arrested for attacking the Iranian leader’s motorcade. Deep-seated divisions are not so easily healed.

In fact, nothing could really replace the loss to Iran of so vital a strategic ally as Syria. If the Iranian nuclear story does finally, after Assad’s departure, culminate in a strike by Israel or the US, Syria would be unable to contribute to Iran’s response, while Hezbollah would be denied a critical corridor of support and resupply during and after the confrontation.

Throughout the civil war, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have actively supported the Assad régime, but the West as a whole has resisted the temptation to become directly involved. It has relied instead mainly on strong words.

For example, at the end of January, amid reports of the wholesale killing of civilians by the Syrian army, US President Obama released a video statement to the Syrian people: "In the face of this barbarism, the United States has joined with nations around the world in calling for an end to the Assad regime, and a transition that leads to a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syria.”

Only Israel among the Western democracies, perceiving some of the possible dangers flowing from the fall of Assad, has taken effective action. The eventual fate of Assad’s huge arsenal of missiles, sophisticated ground-to-air and ground-to-sea rockets, and chemical weapons, is of as great a concern to the democratic world as to Israel. Not only might Assad seek to ensure that they are removed to some jihadist safe haven before the apocalypse, but In the chaos of a post-Assad Syria they could as easily fall into the hands of jihadists in Syria itself, or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In either eventuality the West would be at risk, though Israel would probably be the terrorists’ prime target.

Israel’s presumed airstrike within Syria on the night of 29-30 January was aimed at countering such threats. Some media reported that Israeli fighter jets struck a Syrian convoy suspected of carrying SA-17 missile parts, a Russian-made, medium-range delivery system, and other equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon; others that an Israeli strike targeted a research facility near Damascus – probably Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS), a state organization suspected of developing biological and chemical weapons and transferring them to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The fall of Assad is likely to plunge the region into a new era of instability. A fragmented, decentralized, and dysfunctional Syria is the likely outcome, with Tehran remaining active in parts of the country. If so, the existing jihadist challenge to Israel along the Sinai border may well be matched by a new jihadist challenge from within Syria, perhaps both coordinated. This possibility may explain why Israel recently began erecting a sophisticated security fence in the Golan, similar to the one just completed in Sinai.

A huge destabilized area in the centre of the Middle East is in no one’s interests – it is likely to become a tempting hunting ground for vested jihadist entities whose main interests are their own bitter power struggles. Coordinated planning involving the US, the EU and Israel, with the aim of averting the worst possible scenarios in post-Assad Syria, is becoming an urgent necessity.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 7 February 2013:

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