Syria’s Endgame Has Its Consequences

July 26, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Fighters from the Syrian opposition guard
Fighters from the Syrian opposition guard a checkpoint during clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad (portrait), in the center of Syria's restive northern city of Aleppo on July 25. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/GettyImages)

The endgame in Syria’s drawn-out drama is nigh. Few Syria observers now question that the Assad regime is doomed; they only question how many days or months it has left. But irrespective of the timeline, what’s more important are the consequences, and the ripples it will send across regional and international politics.

Sweden-based Aron Lund, a freelance journalist and author of “The Dream of Damascus,” an account of the political history of the Assad family and the Ba’ath Party, says this is the beginning of the end since the Assad regime has lost control over parts of Kurdish areas and certain areas of the poor, and Sunni-dominated countryside, with the eastern regions seeming likely to go next.

Until now, the regime has shown resilience, but the last month has seen some rapid developments, Lund points out. The opposition army launched a major offensive in Damascus, killing several top key members in the regime, and Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a confidante of President Assad’s defected.

Still it is hard to predict how and when it will all end.

“So much is down to appearances,” he says. “If people believe that the regime will fall, they are more likely to take to the streets, so we may see a snowball effect, but the opposite is also true. This is a regime that may well fight for a really long time, but it may also fall very quickly.”

The main groups fighting the regime right now are dependent on Western backing.

The United States and France, and their regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, all have an interest in the opposition and would like to see certain groups take over, says Lund.

This is not necessarily an ideologically compatible alliance. Nobody expects Syria to completely and immediately reverse its policy toward Israel, for instance, but that may not be so important right now, Lund argues.

He points to Libya as an example, where Islamist rebels, backed by France and the United States, ousted Moammar Gadhafi, and how this has served to improve the Libyans’ relationship with and perception of the West.

“Right now, this is a rather opportunistic alliance on the part of the West, but that also goes for the rebels. It may all change later on, depending on which groups will have continued support from the West,” he said.

Many ordinary Syrians do care about the country’s relationship with Western governments, Lund thinks.

“Syrian politics is permeated by a strong Syrian and Arab nationalism. The government exploits this in their propaganda, where they accuse the rebels of being foreign agents. There are certainly a lot of discussion among Syrians, and probably a lot of concern in some quarters,” he said.

On the other hand, with the increased violence, more Syrians are now openly calling for Western intervention, something unheard of a year ago, he added.

The local dynamics in the region will be affected, but again it is difficult to know exactly how it will play out.

A key factor in the area is the relationship between Iran, Israel, and Lebanon. Secular, Arab nationalist Syria and the Persian theocracy of Iran are strange bedfellows, but they have forged a strong relationship around their common enemies: the United States and Israel. Without an ally in Syria, Iran’s ability to influence the region is significantly weakened, says Lund.

Israel, on the other hand, is in a precarious position. It fears both an Islamist government in Syria, which may be strongly allied with Hamas, and a general destabilization that could disrupt the peace.

The Lebanese, Iran-backed Hezbollah, or other groups may decide to move against Israel, or some remaining faction within the Syrian regime may become desperate and threaten Israel.

Previously Israel and Syria moved against each other indirectly, often through Lebanon, but “if and when the Assad regime falls, all bets are off,” Lund said.

On a global, geopolitical scale, a change in Syria could also lead to far-reaching consequences.

In an analysis this week for global intelligence firm Stratfor, George Friedman says the fall of the Assad regime will see the United States come out on top in several ways: Iran will be weakened, and the area may thus develop a balance of power that does not demand constant American intervention, as Turkey will start to balance Iran’s influence more.

This will in turn free Washington to focus on global issues, including China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow would prefer to see the United States bogged down in another costly intervention.

Furthermore, if Assad falls without Western intervention, Friedman argues, this will create a positive precedent for nonintervention, which would be welcome by the Pentagon and NATO.

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