The Devil You Know …
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The Devil You Know …

U.S., Israel may prefer ruthless but stable Assad in Damascus to an unknown, possibly fundamentalist successor.

Despite Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s attempt to suppress — with massive force and live bullets — the growing rebellion in his country, Syrian experts believe that neither Israel nor the United States want to see him go.

“Bashar is secular — not a fanatic Muslim — and it is likely we can deal with him,” said Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. “In a worst-case scenario if the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, we would not be able to strike a [peace accord].”

Maoz said that is the “same reason the U.S. doesn’t intervene militarily because it is still interested in [Assad] preserving his position because of Syria’s influence on Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. In regime change, all of this can change. So Israel for the time being is quiet and doesn’t say anything, but behind the scenes the policymakers would prefer to see him survive.”

The expanding military role of Western nations in helping rebels overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafy is also having an influence when it comes to Syria, according to Mohamad Bazzi, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs.

“After the experience in Libya, I doubt the U.S., Britain or France would be able to get a resolution strongly condemning Syria through the U.N. Security Council,” he said. “The Chinese and the Russians are upset with the way things have played out in Libya — the fact that it was not finished in a week or two.”

Bazzi too said the U.S. is interested in seeing Assad remain in power because he is seen as a “source of stability” despite his regime’s corruption and suppression of freedom.

“My guess is that — short of some really vast killings,” the West will not intervene militarily, he said.

At least 112 people were reportedly killed last weekend when security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad opened fire on tens of thousands of protestors in at least 20 cities and towns throughout the country. It was the deadliest confrontation and largest demonstration in five weeks of protests for political freedom and an end to corruption; some also called for Assad’s ouster.

There were reports Sunday of plainclothes security forces breaking into homes after midnight and arresting activists in an area known as the old garden district of Damascus. Except for one demonstration there, the Syrian capital has been relatively quiet.

Assad’s tactics were strongly condemned by the West, with President Barack Obama accusing Iran of playing a role in the violence and British Foreign Secretary William Hague saying he was “appalled by the killing of demonstrators by Syrian security forces.”

Should the West wish to do more than issue statements of rebuke, it has several options short of military intervention, according to David Schenker, an expert on Middle East politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There are additional sanctions the U.S. can levy under the Syrian Accountability Act,” he said. “Many have been implemented, but one that has not would prohibit U.S. companies from doing business with Syria. It is also possible that Israel should be brought before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. And we could talk to the French to try to get a more multinational set of sanctions brought against Damascus.”

Schenker pointed out that the Syrian leadership thrives on its ability to be a member of the “axis resistance” — Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah — and at the same time to have its president and first lady visit France on an official state visit.

“His is one of the most ruthless regimes and he has managed to have it both ways,” he added. “While we don’t have to call for an end of his regime, we can call it as we see it.”

Were Assad’s regime to be toppled with Western help, it could trigger sectarian warfare. “The last thing we want to do is to get sucked into a big civil war there,” said Joshua Landis, a prominent Syrian expert here. He noted that Assad and the leaders of the military are Alawites, a minority group in Syria in which 70 percent of the country is Sunni.

“Under the Ottomans the country was multi-ethnic and it was hard to create a nation state because of its diversity,” Landis said. “The authoritarian regime [of Bashar Assad and before him his father, Hafez Assad] has held everything together. Once it goes, the model will be either Iraq or Lebanon but not Tunisia, which is homogenous Sunni Arab.”

Landis said Israel fears Assad’s overthrow because while he has been in power its border with Syria has remained calm.

“If the regime collapses and you get chaos, it opens the door to Islamic groups or a weak democracy that immediately would turn to America and ask for the return [from Israel] of the Golan Heights in order to bring about consolidation of the country. So Israel would pay a price.”

Landis added that in the short term the chaos in the Arab world “is better for Israel because everyone is inward looking and absorbed with the questions of legitimacy and authority. What happens in the long term is hard to tell.”

Although the crowds of protestors in Syria have grown each week, Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the protests have “yet to take the form of the other Arab revolutions.”

“There doesn’t appear to be a mass movement in Syria, basically because it has a much less homogeneous society than does Egypt and Tunisia,” he explained. “Syria is a minority-run government and it is going to fiercely resist being displaced.”

In addition, Murphy pointed out that the security forces being used to stop the protests are no longer led exclusively by Alawites.

“There is support outside of the Alawite community for the present leadership,” he said. “[The Assads] have been in power 40 years. They have been resented, there are tensions and one is aware of who is an Alawite and who is not. But just as in the case of Kaddafy who has been in power a long time, [Bashir Assad] has created some loyalties that help in time of need.”

Although Assad resorted to violence after his lifting last week of a 48-year-old emergency law failed to placate protestors, Murphy said it is unlikely he would attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. In February 1982, Hafez Assad ordered the Syrian army to squelch an uprising by Sunni Islamic groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood — and reportedly killed between 20,000 and 40,000 people, mostly civilians. Murphy said the elder Assad got away with it because few people knew about it, something impossible today because of the Internet.

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