Dr Barah Mikail
(Senior Researcher, Middle East and North Africa, FRIDE Think Tank, Spain)
As events have unfolded across the MENA region over the last six months, violence in Syria has reached unbearable degrees. Bachar al-Assad’s regime has managed to crush anti-government demonstrations despite criticism and sanctions adopted by the “international community”. The more criticism has been forthcoming, the more the Syrian government has propagated the foreign conspiracy by-line. Indeed, the regional environment is sensitive enough to have anyone refrain from reiterating the Libyan experience.
De facto, Syria’s very specific geopolitical environment combined with the absence of any serious alternative to the regime are probably the main reasons for which the country seems to have been shielded from any direct military interference. Indeed, Bachar al-Assad’s regime banks on asserting that internal stability is better guaranteed by the status quo, bearing in mind the weaknesses or indeed, absence, of any serious structure within the so-called “opposition”.
The complexity of the regional environment is evident in Syria’s dual role: its close relations with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah suggest it could pour oil on the regional fire with Iran backing Syria, and/or Syria encouraging Hamas and Hezbollah to threaten Israel and/or the Iraqi Resistance to radicalise their anti-American and anti-Iraqi government position. On the other hand, Syria’s lack of readiness to confront Israel directly, gives the impression that Damascus could even contribute to a regional peace – indeed, three years ago, Syria had engaged in indirect peace negotiations with Israel.
Obviously, no one is able to determine what would really happen in Syria if a brutal political transition occurred, nor the impact such a scenario could have on Syria’s traditional allies. A lot of commentaries and analyses give the impression that Iran and Hezbollah would be prepared to create a bellicose regional situation in order to protect Assad if he began to lose his grip on the internal situation. Nevertheless, pragmatism and realism rather give the impression that each of these actors would ultimately seek to preserve their own interests. Trying to defend the Syrian regime as long as such an option is feasible is one thing; but if Assad proves to be close to the end of his reign, it is unlikely that either Iran or Hezbollah would rush to salvage the wreckage of a lost cause.
The only certainty is that a post-Assad era will reshape the regional and international landscape. Indeed, no one can imagine that any successor to the current regime would keep on defending the same geo-political strategy, be it colluding with anti-American and anti-Israeli political movements, or trying to exert influence on neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. Any new political formula will have a significant impact on Syria’s future and will determine whether the country maintains its strategic regional value and traditional alliances.. Geography is not everything on the Middle Eastern chessboard: Egypt’s influential regional stance 40 years ago compared to its more passive, pro-Western stance under Mubarak illustrates this.
It is likely that any alternative Syrian formula would reject almost every strategic option of Bashar’s regime: swapping Iran for Saudi Arabia, re-establishing cordial relations with Turkey; turning from Hezbollah to Saad al-Hariri and his allies in Lebanon; strengthening relations with Palestinian Fatah and remaining cautious in dealings with Hamas; keeping less distance from the United States, but getting ready to express disagreements with Russia; and pressuring the international community to secure the return of the Golan Heigths to Syria. Furthermore, considering that Syria is populated by a majority of Sunnis, it seems highly likely that Syria would join the regional convoy led by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
That said, the ongoing absence of any serious alternative to Assad’s regime, the fears that its sudden demise would soon be followed by inter-confessional tensions, the international community’s reluctance to engage in a military scenario that could quickly turn into a quagmire, and finally, the “better the devil you know” attitude, are all presented as good guarantees for maintaining the incumbent regime, in spite of a parallel wave of criticism. In this context, whatever developments occur in the near future, as long as the current institutions prevail in Syria, the government is not likely to readily turn its back on its traditional allies. On the contrary, stronger international criticism is likely to provoke stronger refutations of international interference. Over the four past decades, the Syrian state apparatus has been convinced that its interests and stability have been preserved thanks to its strong regional assets and policies; why would this stance change now that the Syrian government says it is facing a “foreign conspiracy?”