Published in Wikistrat on Aug. 3, 2012.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has been away from the public eye since a spectacular suicide bombing attack rocked Damascus, killing the defense minister and other key officials. Unconfirmed reports stated Assad has fled the capital; either to his Alawite stronghold in Latakia or to his erstwhile ally Russia. His whereabouts have become the case of further speculation after he praised his troops not in a public address or even a pre-audio recording, but in the magazine of the armed forces.
Although the Syrian military possesses superior weaponry, the tide may be turning in favor of the rebels. The Free Syrian Army has recently captured tanks and other heavy weapons from the regime, and surface to air missiles, allegedly from Turkey.
Perhaps more significant, it was reported that President Obama has authorized support to the rebels in order to eliminate Assad. This includes the transferring of weapons, logistics and intelligence sharing among Washington, NATO, and its Arab allies with the Syria opposition.
This cooperation coupled with the rebels’ determination to overthrow Assad could actually achieve similar results as in Libya. The rebels may be able to kill Assad and perhaps members of his inner circle, but unlike Libya, however, they probably cannot liquidate Syria’s entire ruling elite, government structure and security apparatus. It’s simply too deeply entrenched and expansive.
Nonetheless, Assad’s downfall would be a major achievement for the rebels and while members of the military – like in Egypt – will likely continue to play a leading role, the rebels will naturally make their own policy changes.
First, the rebels will take revenge against those who did not support their cause. They will expel the Russians and Chinese. Beijing will not be too devastated by this action but Moscow will suffer the loss of its closest and longstanding Arab ally. Beyond severing diplomatic relations, the rebels may resort to violence similar to how Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy and kidnapped Americans for 444 days. Russia’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians and its decision to veto countless UN resolutions against Assad’s brutality will not soon be forgotten.
Second, a post-Assad Syria in which the opposition has greater authority will likely downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran. Apart from Russia and China, Tehran is Assad’s principle regional ally and benefactor. Iran articulated that it was pro-reaction (Assad) and anti-revolution (rebels) and although it is unlikely there would be a complete severance of diplomatic ties, a new Syria would resist falling under Iran’s sphere of influence. This in turn would be a major loss in the Ayatollah’s strategy of expanding its influence across the Middle East to the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, Iranian terrorist proxies Hamas and Hezbollah would most certainly be unwelcome in a new Syria for initially sympathizing with Assad’s regime and later remaining neutral once the brutality became exposed to the world and the possibility that the rebels could win.
Third, removing Assad and Syria away from a Shia-sponsored arc of terror does not necessarily mean a new Syria will be more likely to normalize relations with Israel. Although the rebels, most of whom are Sunni, would naturally like to bring Syria back into the predominately Sunni Muslim Middle East, they will not break ranks with the general pan-Arab stance which prevents normalization and diplomatic relations with Israel until the Palestinian dispute is resolved. It is also likely a post-Assad Syria would continue demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 War.
Fourth, the United States, NATO and Turkey would enjoy closer ties with a post-Assad Syria in which the rebels play a major role. Just as the rebels will not forget who abandoned them during their time of need; they will embrace those who assisted them. Greater Western influence will undermine Chinese and Russian influence in the region; signal to others living under dictatorships that Washington and its allies have the capacity to help them achieve freedom; work with new allies to prevent Iran from going nuclear; and undermine and further isolate militants and radicals including Hamas and Hezbollah.
These scenarios can only become realized from a combination of continued rebel tenacity and motivation to depose Assad coupled with Western aid and support. If either of these factors show signs of fatigue or reduction, the Assad regime will exploit this weakness and liquidate the uprising.