Dangers of Syria's Downward Spiral

Downfall of Assad Could Lead to Nation Splintering

Pitfalls and Opportunities: Israel is hardly involved in the revolutionary events in Syria. Yet, because Syria is politically and historically the most central of the Arab states, the fate of the revolution there could affect Israel in many ways.
getty images
Pitfalls and Opportunities: Israel is hardly involved in the revolutionary events in Syria. Yet, because Syria is politically and historically the most central of the Arab states, the fate of the revolution there could affect Israel in many ways.

By Yossi Alpher

Published March 28, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Of all of Syria’s neighbors, Israel is the least involved in the revolutionary events there, and wisely so. Turkey is arming and training an opposition army; Lebanon is the main avenue for smuggling weapons to the rebels; Jordan is sheltering refugees and may be supplying arms to the opposition; Iraqi Sunnis are helping Syria’s Sunni opposition, while the Shi’ite-dominated regime in Baghdad tilts toward the Alawite regime in Damascus. Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey are weighing their options. Iran is actively aiding the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, because Syria is politically and historically the most central of the Arab states, the fate of the revolution there could affect Israel in several significant ways.

One is by absorbing refugees. Israel understands that it is not a candidate even for humanitarian intervention on the ground in Syria, simply because its motives would be, in every conceivable instance, interpreted by its neighbors as malevolent — that is, to conquer Arab territory. But Syrians fleeing for their lives may not have the time or opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of choosing the Israeli Golan.

Another possibility for Israel’s involvement — highly unlikely, but ominous — is Syrian aggression against it. In the current situation of growing anarchy, the Assad regime could conceivably decide to attack Israel, using its own missiles or a Hezbollah proxy from Lebanon, in the hope of distracting regional and international attention from the domestic situation in Syria and rallying Arab public opinion to its side. Assad, his influential cousin Rami Makhlouf and Hezbollah leaders have all threatened precisely such an attack in the event of a deteriorating situation.

A more likely worst-case scenario in which Israel could feel impelled to intervene proactively involves Syrian strategic weaponry. Syria has a huge stockpile of chemical warheads and missile delivery systems. If the Assad regime is losing its grip on vital ordnance that could be captured by Al Qaeda forces or some other radical Islamist rebels or breakaway military faction and used irresponsibly, Israel might feel impelled to bomb these installations.

At a broader strategic level, the impact on Israel and the region depends on two different sets of very broad and uncertain circumstances. First, will the Alawite/Baathist regime headed by Assad prevail or be driven from power? And second, will there be outside intervention beyond the limited scale we are aware of thus far?

As matters stand, the regime in Damascus remains fairly united, enjoying the loyalty of most of the army, while the opposition appears to be hopelessly splintered and unorganized. Thus the possibility of regime survival must be taken very seriously.

A post-revolution Alawite-ruled Syria (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam) would be able to rely on only Iran for support, and to a lesser extent on Shi’ite elements in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as on Russia and China. The rest of the world, and especially the Sunni Arab world and the West, would condemn it and deny it aid. The regime would be more isolated than ever if and when it triumphs, and would be impoverished and torn by societal strife.

Most significantly for Israel, successful suppression of a Sunni-dominated revolution would strengthen the Alawites’ ties with Iran and its proxies and allies. This could only impact negatively on the broader issue of Iran’s nuclear program and growing tensions within the triangle of the United States, Israel and Iran. From this standpoint, Israel has every reason to desire the downfall of the Alawite regime in Damascus: It would constitute a major blow to Iran’s prestige and its penetration into the Levant.

Moving to the possibility of outside intervention and its effect on Israel’s interests, the only real option for an increasingly concerned international community is to use force — despite the disunity of the Syrian opposition. Under present circumstances no international diplomacy, including that by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, can succeed. The Alawite regime in Damascus is fighting for its life and clearly believes that any serious concessions in favor of political reform or power sharing could spell disaster for its interests and even death and persecution for Syria’s 2 million Alawites.

Even an attempt to provide large-scale humanitarian aid would ultimately require force. France and Turkey have reportedly proposed creating “safe zones” and “humanitarian aid corridors” linking up from the Turkish border with Syria to besieged Syrian cities. Unless the regime’s armed forces have collapsed, they are likely to oppose such an initiative. And it would quickly turn into a bloody military invasion.

Over the past month, the regime has successfully thwarted, in Homs and Idlib, opposition attempts to create geographic enclaves capable of hosting an intervention or anchoring a humanitarian corridor. Moreover, thus far all concerned in the international community have rejected the option of armed intervention. The Saudis, Qataris and Turks suffice with the supply of funds and weapons, and the Americans and the West shun even that possibility.

Another option might be attacks from the air on military and other strategic sites inside Syria. In the United States, Senator John McCain and others are advocating that Washington adopt this strategy as it did in Kosovo and Libya. This would require extensive air cover to neutralize the Syrian Air Force and air defenses, which would fight back.

Any of the options outlined above could lead to a regional Shi’ite-Sunni Cold War. Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’ites would actively support Assad, while Iraqi, Turkish and Jordanian Sunnis would aid the opposition. Indeed, the conflict in Syria could “go regional” even without external state intervention and already may be heading in that direction.

This could mean, in effect, the fragmentation of Syria into ethnic enclaves — Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Druze and Christian — that merge with the surrounding region, and the erasing of Syria’s borders as boundaries of the conflict. Tension over influence in Syria and Iraq and among the region’s Kurds could pit Iran against Turkey. Once again, political Islam would claim it has the solution, while Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist groups would exploit the anarchy to create even more.

Israel might benefit from some of these developments and be hurt by others. It would definitely be heavily affected.

Given this huge potential for escalation and regional chaos, it is not hard to understand why intervention does not seem desirable. It is also easy to appreciate why Syria’s non-Sunni ethnic and religious minorities tend to prefer the “stability” of Assad’s rule over the alternatives, and why even neighbors such as Israel, with its vested interest in pushing Iran out of the region by witnessing Assad’s defeat, are not of one mind about the direction of the bloody events in Syria.

Yossi Alpher is the former director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He currently co-edits bitterlemons.net.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.