Theo Padnos’s long piece on Syria is welcome reading as the U.S. Government begins to seriously consider declaring Assad’s rule illegitimate. It’s a sign of how complex it is to navigate the Middle East that Israel, which has been in an official state of war with Syria longer than I’ve been alive, is not interested in seeing the Assad regime toppled. They’d rather deal with the devil they know. At least they’ve had a stable border situation with Syria, they apparently reason.
Personally, I’ve always thought that the Syrian regime was the most troublesome for Israel. Their alliance with Iran is the key to many of Israel’s problems, from instability in Lebanon, to the arming of Hizbollah, to the strength of Hamas. Assad’s prior popularity was mostly derived from the fact that he puts up an active resistance to Israeli occupation, while the King of Jordan does not, Mubarak did not, the Saudis do not.
We don’t have any leverage over the Syrian government and, like with Iran, any shaming we do on the international stage has the potential to be counterproductive and undermine the legitimacy of the opposition. As with Libya, we probably would be wise to let others take the lead. Right now, Europe is vacillating and the Arab world is divided. Our closest ally in the region, Israel, wants stability. It doesn’t seem like a situation ripe for American intervention. Of course, I said the same thing about Libya, but so far I think by opinion about Libya has been vindicated.
I honestly have no idea what might replace the Assad regime. If the regime has been successful at anything, it has been in keeping the diverse ethnic and religious pieces of Syria from fighting amongst themselves. Syria may have a lousy economy and a terrible record on civil liberties, but it functions. Or, at least, it functioned until March of this year. It no longer functions. There are signs that military cohesion is breaking down. My first prediction is that the Alawite military elite will come under attack from their Sunni Arab and Kurdish underlings. The intelligence elite will be next. And then the possibility opens up of a general purge of Alawites. From there, it’s uncertain whether Syria can be put back together close to the way it has been for years, or if other groups will turn on each other and a sectarian/ethnic bloodbath will occur. If the Alawites are thrown out of power, regardless of how strongly they are pursued, it will disrupt Syria’s alliance with Iran. And I would think that such an outcome would be pleasing to every other government in the world.
Yet, Israel doesn’t want to take that gamble. So, what do I know?