The assassination of three Syrian military leaders loyal to President Bashar al-Assad may hasten the end of his family’s four-decade rule, an upheaval that would affect the security and influence of Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and other neighboring states.
Nabil el-Arabi, secretary-general of the Arab League, expressed anxiety among Syria’s neighbors over the regional fallout from the crisis when he warned July 18 of “a collapse in the situation not only in Syria, but for the whole region.”
If Assad’s regime is toppled, the ensuing power struggle might bring with it revenge killings by or against his minority Shiite Alawite sect, which controls the military and the economy, said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Instability and sectarian violence could bleed into neighboring states such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Already, 125,000 Syrian refugees have fled the violence to neighboring states, with the greatest number to camps in Turkey, the U.S. State Department said yesterday.
No one knows whether the bombing July 18 inside a heavily guarded military compound in the capital of Damascus is the beginning of the end for the Assad family’s authoritarian regime, or what new government or chaos might follow it.
Assad’s closest allies, Iran and Russia, would be the likely losers if power shifts to Assad’s rivals. Lebanon, Jordan and Israel would benefit if Syria’s new leadership ceases to provide a conduit for arms and assistance from Iran to terrorist groups in Lebanon and along the Israeli border, such as Hezbollah, officials and analysts said.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said Hezbollah was behind a bombing that killed at least five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
If Syrian power brokers don’t agree to an orderly political transition, U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials worry that a power vacuum may provide an opening for terrorists or radical Islamists.
“Over the next 24 to 48 hours, either the regime and the security apparatus will rally or real divisions will begin to manifest that would usher in even further instability,” said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Nerguizian cautioned in an interview against making premature assumptions about what might follow Assad. “Even if the regime were to collapse, splinter or change, Syria is likely to be a source of regional instability for at least a decade, and there is no way to map out next phases in the crisis, which are likely to be even more sectarian in nature as the Alawites try to ensure their autonomy and political survival,” Nerguizian said.
Miller, who was a Middle East policy maker in a succession of U.S. administrations, said in an interview that the “end of Assad is not the end game,” whenever it comes. Rather, it will be the first in “a series of transitions.”
Miller said external meddling will continue from regional actors such as Iran, which has supported the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, which has armed his opponents.
Likewise, internal tensions -- the split among minority Alawites who control much of the country’s wealth and military assets, majority Sunnis who support the opposition, and minority Christians and Kurds “who will be asking where their future rests” -- will keep the situation unstable, he said.
“How do you share power in a country that is riven with sectarian differences against a backdrop of 17,000 dead?” Miller asked.
In March 2011, the Syrian government began its brutal crackdown on protesters who were inspired by democratic uprisings across the Middle East. The conflict morphed into clashes between security forces with heavy weaponry and unarmed citizens, as well as the armed opposition Free Syrian Army, which has been aided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Whoever the winners, the major concern is, “When is the retribution going to come?” Miller said.
Many Sunnis will want to take revenge against Alawites and Christians who backed Assad, said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“You can have a violent and bloody situation at home that creates continued refugee flows into Jordan and Turkey, and instability and sectarian tension in Lebanon,” where the Shiite Hezbollah militia, long backed by Syria and Iran, will face an emboldened Sunni and Christian population.
“Hezbollah will feel pinched,” said Schenker. At least in the short run, that will benefit Israel, which will have a weaker enemy on its northern border, he and other analysts said.
The divisions among sectarian and religious groups make Andrew Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” worry that “there’s increasingly a chance the country is going to break into pieces.”
That makes it critical, Tabler said in an interview, that the U.S. “lay down some red lines,” making it clear that it will not tolerate mass atrocities or the use of Syria’s chemical weapons, the largest arsenal in the region.
Miller said he doubts Syria will break apart. “The Arab world doesn’t offer up any example of a state that has fragmented,” he said. “It may be more like Lebanon and Iraq -- a nominal state riven by factional, sectarian and political struggles for power.”
If the current struggle continues for another year, Miller said, Saudi Arabia is likely to support the armed Sunni opposition even more actively, while Iran and Hezbollah will try to prop up Assad and the Russians “hedge their bets and try to avoid” an American-determined transition plan.
The Israelis worry about security on the Golan Heights that they captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and the rise of any extremist elements. Yesterday, Israel limited all military leaves to guard against growing instability in Syria.
On July 17, Major General Aviv Kochavi, chief of Israeli military intelligence, told Israeli lawmakers in a closed-door session that he is concerned about an influx of global jihadists into the Golan Heights, as the Syrian regime moves its forces out of the border region and into the cities to fight unrest, according to a statement from the office of the Knesset committee’s spokesman.
In a post-Assad Syria, Russia stands to lose its only presence in the Mediterranean Sea, a naval facility at Tartus, which analysts said is also a key intelligence-gathering operation for Russia in the region. Russia also could lose billions of dollars in arms sales to Syria.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on July 18 that Israel believes “that the removal of the high-ranking Syrian officials will catalyze the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, we are vigilantly watching the developments and the possibility that Hezbollah might attempt to transfer advanced weapons systems or chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon,” Barak said, according to his office.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said a major concern for Israel is what happens to Syria’s large store of chemical weapons, which the White House has said it believes is still under the regime’s control.
The uprising against Assad has positive consequences for Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and other U.S. allies in the region that have seen less interference by Syria and its terrorist proxies while Assad has been consumed by a revolt at home, he said in an interview.
“Certainly there is the potential for a deluge” after Assad, said Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “But there’s also some upside: the removal of a horrendously brutal regime and the potential for a different Syria to emerge out of this, one that will be in favor of democracy, and dare I venture the thought: peace.”
Indyk, a former assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Middle East, said the fall of Assad’s regime will be “a profound strategic setback for Iran, regardless of what happens afterwards. There’s no way that the next regime going to be pro-Iran, given the role Iran has played in defense of the Assad regime.”
Syria has been a conduit for Iranian influence into Lebanon and as far as the Gaza Strip. Iran “was able to engineer Hezbollah’s takeover of the Lebanese government and turn southern Lebanon into base for potential Hezbollah attacks on Israel, arming Hezbollah with 40,000 rockets via Syria,” said Indyk, co-author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”
A collapse in Syria could create blowback as far as the Persian Gulf, analysts said. Iran, angry at losing its key ally, might retaliate against Saudi Arabia’s support for the Syrian opposition by fomenting sectarian trouble in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich and majority Shiite Eastern Province. “The Iranians may decide to play payback,” Indyk said.
The weaker the Syrian regime gets, said Indyk, the more Lebanon, Jordan and Israel may benefit -- so long as whatever comes next isn’t worse for them. Sunni extremists are unlikely to take over in Damascus, he said, because “they’re a small part of the opposition” in a country where Islamists have been “systematically and brutally repressed and shipped out, so they don’t have the kind of grassroots political network that the Muslim Brotherhood has in Egypt.”
Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in an interview that it’s futile to predict the regional impact of a new Syrian government because “we don’t have the faintest idea what comes next.”
Outsiders know “very little about the resistance inside the country, and they are the ones most likely to take over if Assad goes,” she said.