Op-Ed

The Syrian Rift

Itamar Rabinovich

Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship is facing its biggest crisis since he inherited his father’s position in June 2000. Not long ago, in a long, thrilling interview with the Wall Street Journal, Assad spoke about the stability of his regime, in sharp contrast to the crumbling Mubarak regime. But in the end, the shockwaves of the “Arab Spring” also reached Syria.

The opposition is nourished by the hatred the Sunni majority in Syria feels for the Alawite regime, but also by widespread feelings that the regime is outmoded, corrupt, and is blocking Syria from entering the central stream of life in the 21st century. There is a feeling of exhaustion in Syria from the regime and the oppression that comes with it, and in Daraa and other cities there is good reason to feel ill at ease. For years, the Syrians have resigned themselves to the unwritten arrangement that the regime gave stability and took away rights and freedom. In the political climate that is being created at present in the Arab world, a large part of the Syrian public wants to cancel the arrangement.

In sharp contrast to Egypt, there is no real difference between the military and the ruling authorities in Syria. Both reflect Alawite hegemony, and the various components of the elite know full well what price they will pay if the regime falls. The oppression and slaughter of the early 1980s is having a dual effect on Syria today. The Sunni majority has a bloody account waiting to be settled with the regime, but many people fear that violent resistance will bring about another bloodbath.

At the moment, the regime has responded with an unsuccessful combination of promises for reform and concessions and violent oppression, but apparently this has done nothing to stem the civilian revolt. There are also signs of internal discord within the regime, between those people on the side of far-reaching reforms, and those who claim that such reforms would put the regime in danger. Assad’s leadership will be tested on its ability to establish an effective policy and to enforce it on his regime.

Regime change, or an extended period of instability, in Syria would have a far-reaching impact on the Middle East and on Israel’s security. First, it would be a strong blow to Iran. Up to now, Iran has mainly benefitted from the recent developments in the region. Mubarak’s fall, the events in Bahrain, and the pressure on Saudi Arabia worked to strengthen the axis of opposition and also drew international attention away from Tehran’s nuclear program. Syria is the keystone of the pro-Iran axis. Weakening the Assad regime, to say nothing of its collapse, would be a blow to Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Second, this situation gives breathing space to opponents of the Iranian camp, starting with the moderate camp in Lebanon, but it also creates a temptation for Syria and Iran to ease the pressure on Syria by heating up the conflict with Israel.

The continued conflicts and the possibility of violent repression have created a dilemma for the United States and its allies. The international involvement in Libya was justified by arguments that Qaddafi should not be allowed to slaughter Libyan civilians looking for freedom and democracy. Obama and his partners will be asked to explain why they are not intervening in order to prevent bloodshed in Syria.

At the moment, Israel’s “Syrian option” will be shelved. This option is always hanging in the air as an alternative to the Palestinian track. In recent years, we have heard many times that the Israeli defense establishment prefers this track, because of the advantages of speaking to a stable regime, hurting the Iranian axis and as an opening to change in Lebanon. Others, most notably the prime minister, refused to concede the Golan Heights. This camp now claims, quite rightly, that there is no sense in making a deal like that with a regime whose stability is strongly in question.

In this situation, Israeli policy requires a correct analysis of developments in Syria. [It also requires] security readiness, conversation and strong coordination with the United States and other allies, but also an open mind [to capitalize] on the opportunities presented by the new situation.

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