By: Dr. Josef Olmert*
The remaining advocates of Bashar Assad are working overtime to portray a vision of a completely chaotic Middle East if and when the Alawite regime finally collapses. To predict chaos in the Middle East is a safe bet, so what’s really new in this case? The threat of chaos is almost automatically linked to another round of Arab-Israeli war, this time a Shi’ite-led Iranian-Hezbollah-Alawite desperate attack on Israel. Well, while the Israelis may naturally take the proper precautionary steps to deal with the day after Assad, they are far from showing any sign of undue worry or panic.
There is concern about the arsenal of chemical warheads that is in Syrian hands, some of it was transferred to Syria from Iraq on the eve of the American invasion of March 2003. The fear is that these warheads may find their way to Hezbollah and Iran. Surely not a pleasant prospect, but not one that cannot be dealt with. Even Hezbollah and the Iranians know that any attempt to use these weapons against Israel will be calamitous to them. The thought that either of the two will risk their very existence [in the case of Hezbollah], or most vital national interests [in the case of Iran], in support of the Alawite dictatorship is good for psychological warfare, but not in the real world. The same applies to the possibility of Iranian closure of the straits of Hormuz in support of Assad. Really? Not really…
They will not do that. All this is relevant to the Syrian situation and its implications, not to the much talked-about scenario of an Israeli or American attack against the Iranian nuclear program. This is clearly a totally different opera. The connection between a final collapse of the Assad regime and the Israeli and/or American calculus regarding Iran is possible but not inevitable. Sure, a Syrian participation in an Iranian retaliation against a strike is not something cherished by Israeli and American planners and policy makers, but this is becoming a remote possibility since the Syrian Army is in a stage of disintegration. General Mustafa Al-Sheikh, the highest ranking Syrian defector, predicted some days ago that the Syrian Army will disintegrate until the end of February. This may be wishful thinking in terms of the timing, but not the process, which is very obvious, leading in the not distant future to that exact outcome. So, if we move away from the Israeli angle of the situation, what else can happen affecting neighboring countries and overall regional stability? First, we can expect a massive refugee problem, Alawites trying to cross to Lebanon and Turkey. Also, possible mass flight out of Ba’athi functionaries, not just Alawites. Chaos in Syria will inevitably take its toll of neighboring Lebanon.
Tripoli, a Sunni city with a sizable Alawite minority, is likely to explode, and that will be part of a bigger issue in Lebanon, as the traditional anti-Assad forces there, mainly the Sunnis and some Christian Maronite factions, will find the new circumstances conducive to put pressure on Hezbollah, demanding it dismantle its arms. The not so old wounds created by the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri will reopen with ferocity. Whether all that will lead Lebanon towards chaos is not clear, though it’s likely. Sheikh Nasrallah, however, will find himself and Hezbollah engaged in a conflict with the majority of the Lebanese people. So, under these circumstances, a war initiated by him against Israel may seem a good diversionary exercise, but still is highly unlikely. The Sheikh will fight for his own survival inside Lebanon as his first priority.
Another country that will feel the brunt of the Assad collapse will be Iraq, where the current Sunni-Shi’i tension may be greatly exacerbated, as the former will be much encouraged by the rise of a new regime in Syria, most likely Sunni-dominated. Not for nothing, the Maliki government in Iraq is the most pro-Assad Arab government. They know why.
Then there is Turkey. But for the expected Alawite flight across the northwestern border, the Turks should be greatly preoccupied by the fallout of a collapse in Damascus on the northeast border, where over 2 million Syrian Kurds live, just waiting to rid themselves of the Assad yoke. An unruly Kurdish population on the Syrian side of the border will not be good news to the Turkish government and military having to deal with their own unruly Kurdish population.
The Turks may gain, however, many political dividends from their support to the Sunni Syrian rebels. A Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus is likely to be friendly to Ankara, and so Turkey’s overall regional standing may be significantly enhanced. Such a regime in Damascus will also be friendly to the Saudis, and a Turkish-Saudi rivalry over influence in Damascus of the future is highly likely. The big losers will be Iranians. They cannot expect a friendly Syrian government in the near future. The overall regional Sunni-Shi’i schism will be in display in the most dramatic way. But even that is not really new, as this schism has been a feature of Middle East Islamic reality since the killing of Imam Hussein in 680 A.D.
The downfall of Bashar Assad is behind the door. No Armageddon, but still a significant challenge to regional stability.
*Adjunct Professor, University of South Carolina