Who will fill the vacuum in Damascus?

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si UN Syria~6 [1] AP TALKS: Members of the UN Security Council listen to Syrias UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, during a meeting on the situation in Syria at UN headquarters. Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to impose non-military sanctions on Damascus. Picture: AP

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 neighbouring states.

Nabil el-Arabi, general secretary of the Arab League, expressed anxiety among Syria’s neighbours over the regional fallout from the crisis when he warned this week of “a collapse in the situation not only in Syria, but for the whole region”.

If Assad’s regime was toppled, the ensuing power struggle might bring with it revenge killings by or against his minority Shia 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 neighbouring states such as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Already, 125 000 Syrian refugees had fled the violence to neighbouring states, with the greatest number going to camps in Turkey, the US State Department said.

No one knows whether the bombing inside a heavily guarded military compound in the capital, 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, will be the probable losers if power shifts to Assad’s rivals. Lebanon, Jordan and Israel would benefit if Syria’s new leadership ceased 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 said on Thursday that 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, US 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 policymaker in a succession of US administrations, said in an interview that the “end of Assad is not the end game”, whenever it comes. Rather, it would be the first in “a series of transitions”.

Miller said external meddling would 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” – would 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 last year, 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 turn out to be, the major concern was, “When is the retribution going to come?” Miller said.

Many Sunnis would want revenge against Alawites and Christians who backed Assad, said David Schenker, director of the programme 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 Shia Hezbollah militia, long backed by Syria and Iran, would face an emboldened Sunni and Christian population.

“Hezbollah will feel pinched,” said Schenker. At least in the short run, that would benefit Israel, which would 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 made it critical, Tabler said in an interview, that the US “lay down some red lines”, making it clear that it would not tolerate mass atrocities or the use of Syria’s chemical weapons, the largest arsenal in the region.

Miller said he doubted Syria would 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 struggle continued for another year, Miller said, Saudi Arabia was likely to support the armed Sunni opposition even more actively, while Iran and Hezbollah would 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, which they captured from Syria in the 1967 war, and the rise of any extremist elements. This week, Israel limited military leave in response to growing instability in Syria.

On Tuesday, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, chief of Israeli military intelligence, told Israeli lawmakers he was concerned about an influx of global jihadists into the Golan Heights, as the Syrian regime moved 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 was also a key intelligence-gathering operation in the region. Russia also could lose billions of dollars in arms sales to Syria.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday that Israel believed “that the removal of the high-ranking Syrian officials will catalyse 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 US ambassador to Israel, said a major concern for Israel was what happened to Syria’s large store of chemical weapons, which the White House believes is still under the regime’s control.

The uprising against Assad had positive consequences for Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and other US allies in the region that had seen less interference by Syria and its terrorist proxies while Assad was 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 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 favour of democracy, and dare I venture the thought: peace.”

Indyk, a former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said the fall of Assad’s regime would be “a profound strategic setback for Iran, regardless of what happens afterwards. There’s no way that the next regime is going to be pro-Iran, given the role Iran has played in defence 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 a 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 Shia Eastern Province. “The Iranians may decide to play payback,” Indyk said.

The weaker the Syrian regime got, said Indyk, the more Lebanon, Jordan and Israel might benefit – so long as whatever came next wasn’t worse for them. Sunni extremists were unlikely to take over in Damascus, he said, because “they’re a small part of the opposition” in a country where Islamists had 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 it was futile to predict the regional impact of a new Syrian government because “we don’t have the faintest idea what comes next”.

Outsiders knew “very little about the resistance inside the country, and they are the ones most likely to take over if Assad goes”, she said. – Washington Post-Bloomberg


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