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Challenges for Syria’s Neighbors

Interviewee: Michael Young, Daily Star, Opinion Editor
Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
July 26, 2012

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Many observers think Syria's seventeen-month-old conflict hit a "turning point" (Economist) when a bomb struck at the core of President Bashar al-Assad's high command on July 18, killing several members of the regime elite including the defense minister and Assad's brother-in-law. But Michael Young, a Mideast expert at the Daily Star of Lebanon, says the strike is one of a series of blows in a "war of emancipation" that has been "unwinnable" for Assad since mid-2011. Assad's departure would have significant implications for the region, says Young. In particular, "it would be a major loss for the Iranians" and have divisive effects in Lebanon, he says. A legitimate government in post-war Damascus could also complicate relations with Israel, which favored the autocratic status quo, he notes.

Has Syria reached a clear turning point, and is Assad definitely on his way out?

The regime also adopted a tactic from the outset where it wanted to portray the opposition as basically al-Qaeda, as a radical Islamist opposition. In a sense it tried to force the other side to become more radically Sunni, so it could turn to the world and say, "Look, we're facing radical Sunnis."

Yes, but there were subtle turning points before last week. The regime's continuing inability to suppress the uprising completely was in itself very indicative over the last several months. The mood changed in Damascus and Aleppo months ago despite the notion that the regime had not tipped over completely. Particularly the merchants in the souk were very unhappy.

This has been a steady decline over the last year and a half. My view has been that this was unwinnable as far as Assad was concerned since the middle of last year. He could not return Syria to where it was in, let's say, February 2011. So some version of the regime may last, may go on, but it's the end for this regime.

How much of the conflict is sectarian? How do you see the real battle lines being drawn?

There are many rifts. This remains for me primarily a war of emancipation. It's basically people who want to be finished with this brutal, repressive--and in the last year and a half, I would even say homicidal--regime. It's a regime that has shown, when faced with peaceful protests for months, that it was unwilling to give anything up. Its only tactic was repression.

It essentially pushed the opposition into picking up arms and created the dynamics we're in today, which is an advanced stage of a year ago. Once the opposition picked up arms, the conflict became more and more brutal, and polarization set in. I hold the regime primarily responsible for this--it did indeed create sectarian polarization. That was partly the tactic adopted by the regime initially to ensure that the Alawites would remain in solidarity with each other and that no one would break ranks.

The regime also adopted a tactic from the outset where it wanted to portray the opposition as basically al-Qaeda, as a radical Islamist opposition. In a sense it tried to force the other side to become more radically Sunni, so it could turn to the world and say, "Look, we're facing radical Sunnis." I don't think that worked, frankly.

In certain areas of central Syria, between Homs and Aleppo, in the mountains, you've had cases of what appears to be sectarian cleansing. By and large, there is more to the story than simple sectarian conflict. The fundamental motive of most of the Syrian opposition is to basically be rid of a tyrannical, brutal, as I said homicidal regime. However, we will definitely have sectarian repercussions in the aftermath, precisely because of the regime's policy.

If the regime falls, how big of a loss is this for Iran, and what sort of a response do you see from Tehran?

It would be a major loss for the Iranians. This is why they are so heavily involved today in sustaining the Assad regime militarily, financially. It would weaken their interests in the Levant quite significantly. Now the big question is what type of Syria emerges from this conflict. I think everyone sees the end game in Syria being the fall of Bashar al-Assad. I'm afraid it may be much more complicated than that.

And what's the answer to that?

Is it a unified Syria or not? The centrifugal forces have been unleashed. You have the Alawis on one side, but you also have the Kurds. I don't see the Kurds going back to a situation that existed in early 2011. They will demand some or a significant amount of autonomy in a new Syrian state. If the Alawis are afraid and fall back on their heartland, there too you're going to have a situation where a new central government in Damascus will have to wrestle with a state that is not strongly unified. In that context, it will create openings for the Iranians to play on differences.

Both Turkey and Iraq very much worry that if Syria falls apart, it will have very negative repercussions on their own society, which are very mixed, especially in the border regions of Syria.

Do you see a strong role for Turkey in a post-Assad Syria?

The Turks will play a very key role in what type of post-Assad state exists in Syria. For instance, they will be very reluctant to see an Alawi mini-state take form. In fact, they will actively oppose it. They will try to work on some kind of Syrian reunification.

But it's not clear how they can influence the Kurds, because obviously the Kurds don't trust the Turks. But certainly Turkey has a significant interest in the post-Assad Syria, if only economically, given that Syria will have to trade with its big northern neighbor.

And how about Iraq?

In a strange way they, too, have an interest in some form of internal reconciliation. Syria's Kurds and Iraq's Kurds are very close, But one thing that the Iraqis don't want is for Syria to become a base of operations for Sunni insurgents against the Iraqi government. The Iraqis want to ensure that any transition in Syria goes quickly and smoothly, and that there is some kind of fairly strong central government. Both Turkey and Iraq very much worry that if Syria falls apart, it will have very negative repercussions on their own [societies], which are very mixed, especially in the border regions of Syria.

What are the consequences for Lebanon and Hezbollah?

Lebanon is divided over Syria, as it's divided over many things. Syria has its supporters and its strong enemies in Lebanon. The Lebanese definitely are going to feel the repercussions of the fall of Assad, because it's going to reshape the balance of power politically in the country--perhaps to Hezbollah's disadvantage politically, and yet militarily, Hezbollah remains as strong as ever. The key objective of the Lebanese political class will be to try to define some national reconciliation formula to maneuver through this uneasy period. The Sunni community will feel much more invigorated after the fall of the Assad regime. Hezbollah will feel much more threatened. It's not going to be easy when it comes to Lebanon.

How is Israel watching this?

Israel has been one of the countries least adapted to embrace the changes of the Arab world in the last year. Israel was, in many respects, relatively pleased with the autocratic status quo in the Arab world. It liked the fact that regimes kept their societies under wraps in many respects. So today the Israelis are very worried about the aftermath of the Arab Spring, whether it's in Egypt, whether it's in Syria. I don't think this is going to change.

In the long term, the real question the Israelis have failed to answer is: How do they adapt to change in the Arab world?

The Israelis are focusing today in Syria on the issue of chemical weapons, whether these will reach Hezbollah. These are tactical issues which are quite important with respect to Israeli security, but in the long term, the real question the Israelis have failed to answer is: How do they adapt to change in the Arab world?

For example, how do the Israelis deal with Golan Heights negotiations if you have a legitimate government in Damascus? I think they're very worried about that. While you can tell the Assads to go to hell, if you have a representative government in Damascus that is requesting return of occupied land, that'll be more difficult for the Israelis to manage. Ultimately, the Israelis have painted the developments in the Arab world as very threatening. Where many people see these developments as potentially leading to greater emancipation, greater pluralism, if not democracy, Israel seems to have gone against the grain by seeing this generally as a threat, as problematic.

I do feel Israelis are wholly out of touch with what's going on, and ultimately, they may see an Arab Spring in Israel. If they have no solution to their own Palestinian question, there will be a revolt.

What does this mean for Russian interests in the Middle East?

The Russians may not be on good terms with the Syrian opposition, but if the Alawis can protect themselves in the communal heartland, and there are negotiations between a new government in Damascus and the Alawi community, the Russians can play a role here.

The Russians have handled this rather poorly up to now. Ultimately, they may pay a price for their policy in Syria, but we shouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that because they've played this poorly, they will automatically be eliminated from Syria. The post-Assad period may be much more complex than the situation today is, and that will open the door to many actors, and to different types of actions--not only military support, but also diplomacy.

What should the international community be doing to mitigate a chaotic collapse of the Syrian state, let's say, after Assad falls?

I don't know. What they've done so far has been ineffective on all sides. Let's be very blunt here: The dynamics in Syria have been driven, by and large, by the Syrians themselves, with very little help from the international community. The UN has been in complete deadlock in the last year, and the dynamics will be written by the Syrians themselves and regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and maybe Iraq.

The United States has greatly marginalized itself in this process, maybe intentionally. And the Europeans are not going to be more influential than the United States. Again, the dynamics will be driven internally by Syrians and the regional actors. The international community has essentially failed to put its foot in the door here.

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