After 40 years of brutalizing its own people, the Assad regime, one of the most heinous on earth, is approaching its fiery end. For decades Syria’s radical policies made it a regional spoiler and it now has the potential to ignite an already combustible Middle Eastern landscape.
In the absence of any American and Western intention to intervene militarily, and given Russia’s and China’s diplomatic obstructionism, international involvement in Syria has been inconsequential. The Annan plan, based on the illusory premise that Assad would undertake domestic reform, could not possibly have succeeded, for the reforms envisaged would have guaranteed his demise. He was thus left with no alternative but to pay lip service to international demands, to stave off possible intervention, while pursuing the only route available to him to ensure his survival – brutal repression.
Today, international intervention is probably too late, the regime will likely soon fall in any event, though thousands of lives might have been saved, and the opposition will no longer settle for less than ultimate victory. The policy of “leading from behind” pursued by the Obama administration in Libya, where it allowed Britain and France to lead, and now in Syria, where it is letting Russia and China block action, have characterized its entire approach to the dramatic changes in the region since the “Arab spring” began. Admittedly, it did not have many good options, but passivity is not a policy prescription.
Syria’s deeply divided and dysfunctional opposition remains a primary obstacle to effective international involvement, but as the endgame nears, the need to forge a united, moderate and effective opposition is greater than ever. The tragedy of Syria, as in Egypt and other regional countries now undergoing transformational change, is that the chances of a moderate democratic regime evolving are minimal. Indeed, it increasingly looks like the tyranny of Assad will be replaced by an Islamist regime, possibly with strong jihadi and even al-Qaeda influences, and Syria itself may fragment. We may yet miss the relative stability and predictability of the Assad years.
In any event, the fall of the Assad regime may be a regional game changer. Iran and Hezbollah are already on the “wrong side of history”, their former stature as revolutionary actors, who successfully confronted the region’s conservative states, the U.S. and Israel, has been greatly tarnished by their avid support for the Assad regime. Both also face other crises as well, Iran over its nuclear program and the future of its regime, Hezbollah over its domestic and regional standing. Saudi Arabia, facilitated by Egypt’s domestic preoccupation, has assumed a new regional leadership role, including in Syria. However, its own succession crisis threatens its stability and it faces significant challenges on all fronts – a rising Shiite Iran to its east, possible radical Islamic states, not subservient to its wishes, in Syria and Egypt, and an imploding Yemen.
In Lebanon, events in Syria have exacerbated long-existing sectarian tensions, raising the specter of renewed civil war. They could also have a negative spillover effect on Iraq and Jordan. Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have deteriorated severely and Kurdish aspirations, Turkey’s ultimate nightmare, have gained a new opening.
For Israel, the demise of the Alawite Assad regime portends a fundamental restructuring of the regional balance of power, with a weakening and possible end to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis, the heart of the radical camp. A new regime in Syria, if more moderate, might ultimately also pose new opportunities for peace.
In the short term, however, it increasingly looks like a new regime may be as unsavory as its predecessor and may threaten the four decades of calm that have prevailed on the Golan Heights. The danger of escalation is great, especially if Syria, or its Iranian and Hezbollah allies, in a desperate attempt to save itself in its final extremis, seek to divert attention from their shared problems by using Syria’s vast chemical arsenal against Israel, Syria’s own citizens, or international players, should they seek to intervene. A long-established rule of dictatorship is that an external crisis is always a good means of deflecting attention from domestic challenges.
Herein, lies an opportunity, even at this late stage, for international intervention. It must be made plain to Assad that any use of chemical weapons, against domestic or external adversaries, would constitute a “red line” leading to decisive international action designed not only to ensure the regime’s demise, but his own as well. None of Syria’s neighbors have any desire to become directly involved in the conflict, nor does the U.S., but an effective response to the chemical threat must be drawn up. Concomitantly, the West must do whatever possible to help build an effective and united opposition and to manage the transition period. It is probably also not too late to help create safe havens in Turkey, Jordan and possibly border regions of Syria itself.
For Israel, the use of chemical weapons, or their transfer to Hezbollah or other radical hands, are simply intolerable and it will have no alternative but to prevent this, even if this may prove to be the catalyst for the broader war it seeks to avoid.
Chuck Freilich was a Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel and is presently an International Security Program Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.