Why friends and foes alike want the embattled president to remain in power.
Finding himself both fiercely and unexpectedly fighting for his regime’s very survival, Syria’s President Bashar Assad took to the airwaves to deliver a sweeping condemnation of the unrest sweeping the Syrian nation. Assad’s hardened stance was a welcome sign for those in the region -- both friend and foe -- who have a vested interest in his political survival, a prospect that makes his removal from power fairly unlikely.
In a televised address, Assad openly blamed the growing turmoil on unnamed outside forces, declaring “Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy, whose threads extend from countries near and far.”
For many pro-reform Syrians, Assad’s attempt to assign blame for the nation’s current turmoil to outside conspirators seemed truly off the mark. If anything, the cause of Syrian unrest has mirrored all Mideast uprisings in 2011: high unemployment, deadening poverty, political repression and official corruption.
Moreover, Assad’s initial response to the unrest has been to utilize the same unsuccessful methods employed by his Arab counterparts: promise reforms, fire his cabinet, and free a few political prisoners. Predictably, the result of those cosmetic concessions has only served to intensify both the spread of the protests and the efforts of the regime to quell it.
Yet, even though the scenario being played out today in Syria may be similar to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the end result may be quite different. To that end, evidence abounds that Assad may not suffer the same fate as what befell the deposed leaders of those two nations.
For starters, as both the Arab world’s foremost Israeli antagonist and Iran’s closest Arab ally, a Syrian civil collapse – one facilitated by Assad’s ouster -- would have broad and highly negative regional implications. As one analyst said, “Nobody has an interest in Syria going aflame. Syrian instability has the potential of destabilizing the entire region.” It is a core reason why a bevy of nations and groups -- albeit for differing reasons -- have hopes that Assad can ride out the storm.
Syria’s closest friends, Hezbollah and Iran, have much to lose from an Assad removal. For Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Assad ouster will cost them a political and military patron, as well as a geographic link to Iran.
For Iran, which recently had Syria open its port of Latakia as an Iranian base, it has more than enough incentive to ensure the continuation of the Assad relationship. As one Israeli foreign ministry official noted, “Syria is an Iranian acquisition, and it is clear that Iran is afraid that its investment will go down the drain.”
To that end, an Iranian command structure has already been setup at Syrian armed forces headquarters in Damascus. In fact, so acute is Hezbollah and Iranian concern over a Syrian implosion, reports have surfaced that both are now actively participating in quelling Syrian demonstrations.
For Turkey, a Syrian collapse would place in jeopardy Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s primary diplomatic and economic strategy, one squarely focused on Syria, Iran and Russia. Moreover, according to journalist Amotz Asa-El, “Assad has shared Turkey’s hostility to Kurdish statehood and shelved Syria’s demand for sovereignty over the Alexandretta region.”
As for the United States, the Obama administration has long engaged in an effort to peel Syria away from its ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. While these efforts have been wholly unsuccessful, the administration still believes Assad’s continued control of Syria to be an integral part of America’s Mideast foreign policy.
To demonstrate that point, the administration went out of its way to assure Assad that -- unlike Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi – he will not face military reprisals from the United States for any actions he takes to quell the Syrian rebellion. This assurance was delivered in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent pronouncement that American intervention into the unrest “was not going to happen.”
While Clinton did say she found the Syrian crackdown on the protests to be “deeply concerning,” Assad’s role as “reformer” had given him immunity from any US intervention, which probably came as somewhat of a shock to the thousands of Syrians currently protesting, fighting and dying in Syrian streets.
Finally, Israel, for its part, has primarily viewed Assad as “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” This belief comes despite the fact that since his ascension to power in 2000, Assad has deepened ties with Iran and Hezbollah; undermined the pro-Western Lebanese government of Saad Hariri; and actively pursued a nuclear program.
Therefore, many Israelis fear that a collapse of Assad’s regime might imperil decades of relative peace along its shared border. As Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser said: “It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?”
Still, while Assad has quite the favorable backing to potentially ride out the current crisis, events and circumstances could still spiral out of his control, forcing him into some unpleasant options.
For example, Assad’s brother Maher Assad, commander of Syria’s 4th division, is tied down suppressing riots in Deraa. As the only military unit manned by Allawites -- the other units by Sunnis -- Assad may find himself short of trusted soldiers in which to defend his regime. If he determines his army to be unreliable, he may choose to concentrate on saving Damascus and, like Bahrain, call for outside help, most likely from Iran, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Palestinian groups with bases Syria.
However, Assad, if truly desperate enough, could do what no threatened Arab leader has done to date: provoke a war with Israel in order to divert popular outrage from being directed at his regime. In a way, a move like that is fairly plausible in that Assad’s anti-Israeli, anti-American bona fides have never been questioned by the Syrian people.
Such a possibility certainly hasn’t been lost on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials who have recently begun to prepare for such a scenario, one in which Assad launches an attack either directly or indirectly through his terrorist proxies.
Still, while many might conclude such an outcome to border on the highly implausible, it would be wise to remember that the Mideast rebellions of 2011 have borne one consistent lesson: the only certainty is uncertainty. It’s a lesson Bashar Assad’s contrasting supporters may soon be taught.