The bloodshed in Syria underscores the many complexities in Middle East affairs. Violence and civil unrest in Syria is not foreign, but the significance of the 2011 uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad stands as the greatest threat to Baathist and Alawite rule since the 1960’s. Despite the claims that Bashar al-Assad’s days were numbered and his regime would crumble under the momentum of the “Arab Spring”, he is still in power and has thus far has successfully maneuvered to put down the Sunni dominated uprising.
President Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafez al-Assad has ruled Syria with an iron fist. The Assads, belonging to the minority Alawite religious sect seized power in the 1960’s on the wave of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Alawites, representing around 12% of the Syrian population were historically the peripheral of Syrian society. They tended to be poor and subject to religious persecution. In the 20th century, they became an influential part of the Syrian armed forces. They were strategically placed within the armed forces by French Mandate administrators, who sought to use the Alawites for political leverage against the Sunni majority. The Alawite influence in the Syrian military is what allowed them to take power in a coup in the 1960’s. STRATFOR, a premium geopolitical online magazine, brilliantly highlighted the nature of Alawite rule in an article this summer. After seizing power, Hafez al-Assad, governed Syria on the tenants of socialism and nationalism. His Alawite faith, considered heretical by conservative Muslims, and his religious stance in Syria garnered him little support from conservative Sunni sects. His ideological outlook, regional policies, and the fact he was of the Alawite sect, would lead to a clash with Sunni radicals in 1982. Unlike his son, Hafez al-Assad systematically crushed a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama, 1982. Killing up to 40,000 in a few weeks, Hafez al-Assad showed the lengths he was willing to go to keep the Alawite ruling regime in power.
After his death, his son Bashar, took power. Bashar was considered too young and too inexperienced to reign with the same authority as his father had. However, this year his will to retain power was tested. Unlike his father, he has tactically confronted the uprising, sending his army from city to city to suppress dissent. The failed revolt in 1982 lasted only several weeks, however, the uprising in 2011 has continued for several months due to Bashar’s tactical use of his forces.
For Israel, there are many strategic risks and possible benefits that come from the uprising in Syria. As STRATFOR noted earlier this summer, the uprising against the regime is primarily Sunni, which receives support from regional Sunni players. Bashar al-Assad, realizing the nature of the rebellion, has predominantly used politically reliable military units that would be willing to engage a Sunni uprising and the bloodshed that entails. The units conducting the crackdown today are comprised predominantly with peripheral Syrian groups, such as the Alawites, Circassian, Christians, and Druze.
Despite Syria’s continued hostility to Israel, Syrian policies towards the Jewish State are predictable. Syria realizes its military inferiority to Israel, thus since 1982 has not sought direct military confrontation. The last time the two sides engaged in war, Syrian forces were soundly defeated in Lebanon. Syrian strategy of reliance on SAM batteries, which were a menace to Israeli aircraft in the Yom Kippur, proved ineffective, as Israel developed new tactics to defeat the state of the art air defense systems. The Syrian airforce suffered heavy losses, resulting in little air support for its ground forces. Following the war, Hafez al-Assad spent vast amounts of money to bring his military to a strategic equilibrium with Israel. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended this effort and the Syrian military has declined ever since. Knowing that he cannot contend with Israel on the battlefield, Bashar al-Assad looked for ways to keep his regime legitimate. The Alawites thought that by propagating hostility towards Israel, they would gain the support of the Sunni majority. To do this, Syria propped up Hezbollah and supported their actions, to an extent, against Israel. They supported Palestinian militant groups, like Hamas, against Israel, but were careful at the same time to keep the Golan Heights quiet. The verbal hostility towards Israel and the support for terror organizations was merely a ruse against the Sunni population to ensure regime legitimacy. Bashar al-Assad had no intetions or illusions in going to war with Israel, for an all out war would seriously threaten his grip on power. The lack of a military response after the 2oo7 attack of the Syrian nuclear reactor by neither Hezbollah, Iran, or Syria, was telling. Yes, Assad is no friend of Israel, but he was an leader that Israel strategically understood and could manage.
Today, despite the brutality displayed by Assad’s forces against his own people, the consequences of him being dethroned could be severe. A weakened Assad, means a weakened Hezbollah, however, the Assad regime acts as a counterweight to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria still regards Lebanon as Greater Syria and continues to have influence in its domestic politics. By supporting Hezbollah, Syria also garners support from Iran, which furthers their strategic alliance. Thus, a strong Hezbollah is a strategic plus for Assad, but an all too powerful Hezbollah could limit Syria’s ability to project power in Lebanon. It is a tight balancing act. If the Alawites were to lose power, which at this exact moment seems unlikely, the biggest losers in the region would be Iran and Hezbollah. The Shiite led axis of Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Alawite ruled Syria would certainly lose regional influence.
Israel, watching from the Golan Heights, has little options on influencing what happens in Syria. If Assad falls, a Sunni run government will take its place. This new government, most likely supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, would surely not change Syria’s historic animosity towards Israel. Even if a new regime was less supportive of hostility, it will be weak, thus for some time unable to control its side of the border with Israel. The result could be an increase in border raids from anti-Israel forces within Syria. There is speculation that a new Sunni government might be pro-western, as cited by a Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs article, however, the country could easily be swayed by radical Islamist or Salafist sentiment that could lead to continued tension with the west. As we have seen with post-Mubarak Egypt, the non-Islamist movements in the Middle East are unorganized and weak. Despite Syria’s history of secularism, the anti-Israeli sentiment sweeping the region is immune to religious ideology or secularism. Israel will find that if Assad falls, Iran could be forced to escalate tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah, while a Syrian ally, marches to the beat of the Mullah’s drums in Iran. Hezbollah would be weakened, but could become more desperate, which usually leads to dangerous scenarios. In the end, whether Assad falls or not, Israel will still have Syria as a regional foe. If a regime change occurs, the new regime, for sometime, be weaker and more unstable than under the rule of the Assads.
Only time will tell the outcome in Syria, but Israel ought to prepare for all scenarios. Iran and Hezbollah are acting contributors to Assad’s regime. There are reports that both parties are actively involved in suppressing the opposition within Syria. Given the restrictions Assad on using his entire army, the sighting of bearded and well armed, supplied, and uniformed Hezbollah militants in Syrian streets is credible.
The brutality used by the Lebanese Shiite organization in Syria creates the possibility of a Sunni backlash against the once touted Hezbollah. A delegitimized Iran and Hezbollah, would be a strategic plus for Israel, but to what extent remains unclear. One thing is clear, the Iranian and Hezbollah focus on supporting the Assad regime and keeping their ally in power mitigates their abilities to confront Israel.