Syria: Expect the Worst?
Amid the Arab Spring, the revolution in Syria stands out after decades of the Syrian regime's absolute rule as not giving up easily, not that there have been many serious efforts to stop it. President Bashar Assad's pictures, as those of his late father Hafez Assad, are all over the place in Syria. They even appear surrounded by a heart-shaped frame on anti-smoking posters, and on the cover of romantic poetry books. The Assads' political façade, the Baath Party has been ruling the country with an Iron-fist by successfully creating an Orwellian society; with so many spies and informers to a point at which the "the family itself has become an extension of the Thought Police," just as in George Orwell's novel, 1984. With such a setup, the Syrian regime probably never expected a revolution. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime is not like any other Arab regime. With its significant borders with Israel, ties to Iran and lavish history of state terrorism, the Syrian regime is not one to go without a very serious fight.
The Syrian regime has had very prosperous political, military, and economic ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran; it seems clear that the Syrian regime is committed to its alliance with Iran, possibly for sectarian motives, but more likely for mutual interest spreading from Tehran, to Damascus, to Beirut, where the Syrian regime has become a broker of business deals between Iran and many Arab countries, as well as a bully threatening the region with its ties to Hezbollah, which could be unleashed against any country, not only Israel.
Unlike the regime of Tunisia's Ben Ali or Egypt's Mubarak, the Syrian regime is controlled by a religious sect, the Alawites, to which the Assad family belongs. The Alawites make up a minority of the Syrian population, estimated at less than 16% of the population, with other religiously-related Muslims sects such as Druze and others, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. As Alawites have historically been looked down on and discriminated against, the very idea of democracy in Syria is not only disturbing to them because they might lose their grip on the Syrian state, but also because it could put all the Alawites back to the point where they used to be before the late Hafez Assad took control of the country in 1971.
The Assads and their Alawite ruling class nonetheless constantly deny their religious consciousness. They not only claim to be secular, but back when the USSR was alive and well; they even claimed to be socialists. Syria's ruling class's claim of secularism, however, does not hold ground when weighed by its political record: The Alawites are considered an extreme offshoot of the Muslim Shiite sect; the late President Hafez Assad supported the Amal Shiite militias during the Lebanese civil war, and participated in the notorious Refugee Camps War against the Palestinians, even though the PLO fighters had already left by then. Lebanese Sunni leaders claimed Assad was fighting the Palestinians because they were Sunnis and their presence in Lebanon would tip the sectarian balance in favor of the Sunni Lebanese against the Shiites. Further, the Syrian regime has had the upper hand in supporting and logistically sustaining the Shiite terrorist group, Hezbollah, which has engaged in hostilities against Israel for more than two decades. While Sunni Muslim clerics are banned from speaking outside their mosques, one could, in 2007, speak to Iranian Shiites scholars roaming the streets of Damascus, preaching and recruiting new members to join the Shiite faith -- all under the watchful eyes of Syrian police officers.
It would have been much easier for the Assad family at several points to establish peace with Israel, or to align with the West as the rest of the Arab dictatorships did, but Syria insisted in associating itself with Iran. Even when Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered Hafez Assad to return most of the Golan heights in exchange for for peace, Assad refused.
With members of the Syrian regime possibly having so much to lose if the regime falls, combined with no serious efforts to stop them, it is only natural that they would be be fierce in protecting their power. Colonel Qaddafi has done the same, refusing to give up, dragging his country into a civil war, and eventually, threatening Western countries bombing his troops to take the terror into "their own homes and kids."
The Syrian regime has defiantly been observing escalation on the Libyan front, and therefore has most likely developed tactics relevant to that -- one of which is doing what its knows best: spreading terrorism against Israel, the West, and, if necessary, neighboring Arab countries. As the Syrian regime realizes that it could not defeat Israel in war -- it has tried that before under Assad in 1973 with the Yum Kippur war, and in the 1980s in Lebanon, when, for example, the Israeli Air Force gave Assad a hard blow by almost exterminating the entire Syrian Air Force fleet in one day in an epic air battle -- it may think it has one option left: to re-launch its terrorist attacks on Israeli and American interests rather than to engage in a war with Israel. As for Israel, Syria might be able to convince Iran to deploy Hezbollah to resume its missile attacks on Israeli cities -- not be the first time Israel might find itself in the middle of a fight where it has no camel. in 1991, for instance, when a global coalition was fighting Saddam's troops to liberate Kuwait, Saddam decided to export his crisis to Israel by launching Scud missiles on major Israeli cities, killing Israeli civilians.
Considering Hezbollah's precedent of igniting wars for political reasons—as was the case in 2006 when Hezbollah launched a war against Israel to avoid pressure during the probe into the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri — Hezbollah might resume fighting Israel to relieve the Syrian regime of its crisis, as it tried to a few weeks ago. Hezbollah has already been accused of shooting Syrian soldiers who were deserting the army because of Syria's crimes against protestors.
Hezbollah has more reasons to stand by the Syrian regime than just its ethnic affiliation. Hezbollah leaders know that without Syria's backing, it will become a much softer target for the already fed-up Lebanese Sunnis and Christians who have been under Hezbollah's control in Lebanon's political life: when Hezbollah defends the Syrian regime, it is defending itself.
Both the US and Israel would do well to prepare for and expect the worst from the Syrian regime and its allies, while at the same time developing alternative solutions. They would also do well to see that tolerating a rogue regime anywhere will not make it go away or change, but will just give it more time to grow stronger and more vicious.
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