The US and its allies are convinced that recent rebel successes in Syria’s major cities, including Damascus, represent the death throes of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The terror attack in Damascus on July 18, that claimed the lives of several top officials, including the president’s brother-in-law, must have shaken the leadership. But celebrations in Western capitals may turn out to be a little too premature, given the regime’s tenacity and its track record of indiscriminate brutality.
There is no doubt that President Assad is intensely disliked and opposition to him is deep and widespread, but it is also a fact that the uprising is aided, financed and armed by Syria’s regional rivals and Western powers. If it is Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are the main financiers, it is the US and its Nato allies who are orchestrating the political and military campaign, of course, on the plea that President Assad’s departure would usher in a democratic dispensation. Not many people appear to recognise that however much we may want to romanticise the Syrian rebels, few are committed democrats. Furthermore, fighters with jihadi credentials have recently joined the fighting.
Consequently, the US and its allies may once again be sowing the seeds of regional uncertainty and turbulence, whose aftermath could be messy and unpredictable. This is why few are likely to mourn President Assad’s departure and yet, remain worried about the future. While Israel would love to see the Assad regime consigned to history, there is a lurking fear that what replaces it may turn out to be a bigger headache. The Assads — both, father and son — have been implacable but predictable foes, who have more than honoured even their verbal commitments to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may wish to castigate Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as an ‘axis of evil’, while Defence Minister Ehud Barak may threaten invasion of Syria on the pretext that Syrian anti-aircraft missiles and chemical weapons could fall into Hezbollah hands. However, other Israelis are more worried about the credentials of the motley crowd that could come into power in Damascus.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that a regime change is anathema to him, not because he is worried about democracy coming to Damascus but because extremism and militancy may start radiating from the Syrian capital. President Barack Obama, too, has rightly been cautious, not wanting a repeat of the dangerous vacuum taking hold in Syria, similar to the one that followed Saddam Hussain’s ouster in Iraq. American experts have warned that the Syrian denouement promises to be much bloodier and far more destabilising than what happened in Libya, which may explain why the US is continuing to lobby with President Putin for support on a UN resolution that will facilitate bringing an end to the Assad regime. The effort, therefore, is to seek a ‘managed transition’, in which Assad is removed but the institutions are retained, especially in view of US fears that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal could be seized by Islamists.
Assad’s departure will undoubtedly bring about a radical change in the region’s politics. Iran would view losing its only Arab ally as a strategic defeat, adding to its siege mentality and hardening its position on the nuclear issue, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies emerging with enhanced influence. The Palestinians, already exhausted, will feel deeply disheartened at losing a committed Arab friend, while Israel would be left free to pursue its illegal settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, with their sectarian and communal rivalries, cannot remain unaffected, either. Regrettably, Syria is destined for a long and grim civil war, with protagonists both inside and outside the country, unable to contemplate a negotiated settlement. The alternative to a situation that is becoming increasingly messy and frighteningly unpredictable is for the US and Russia to work together to ensure a post-Assad power sharing arrangement that maintains the current status quo.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2012.