TSG IntelBrief: The Implications of Change in Syria Part 1
January 7, 2013
This is the first of a two-part series that will explore the complex dynamics that will inevitably surround the fall of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Given Syria’s placement within a complicated and far-reaching network of geopolitical relationships, the change of government in Damascus is certain to launch a wave of cascading effects throughout the region…and beyond.
As of early January 2013, events unfolding in Syria suggest that the fall of the regime of Bashar Al Assad appears increasingly imminent. Rebel forces are beginning to close in on Damascus proper, and there are only isolated pockets of regime forces deployed throughout northern Syria, and these possess little or no offensive capability. Nonetheless, it remains impossible — and ultimately of limited value — to attempt to predict a definitive timeline for Assad’s departure. Of far greater geopolitical importance (especially for policymakers) is a forecast of how the regime’s fall will impact events elsewhere.
Syria’s neighbors are not only moving to prevent any spillover from the war in Syria, but also to calculate and adjust to the structure of the region after Assad’s fall. These calculations are complicated by a lack of clarity about the character of the regime that might replace Assad, in particular whether it will be a secular democracy aligned with the West, an Islamist government such as the one that replaced the Mubarak regime in Egypt, or a “failed state” consisting of perpetually warring factions approximating that of Somalia.
There is agreement, however, that any successor state will be dominated by Sunni Muslims, displacing the minority Alawites — who practice a religion that is an offshoot of Shiism — that has ruled Syria throughout most of the post-World War II era. With that consensus, it is almost certain that a post-Assad Syria will move closer to the major Sunni Muslim powers in the region, to include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf monarchies, Jordan, and Egypt, and move away from the Shiite powers such as Iran and the central government of Iraq.
There is relative consensus among the analytical community that the biggest loser from the fall of the Assad regime will be Iran. Tehran’s alliance with the Assad family has helped Iran gain strategic leverage against its key nemesis, the State of Israel. Over the past thirty years, Assad has put Syrian territory at Iran’s disposal to ship large quantities of rockets to the Shiite Islamist movement, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. These weapons were used to significant effect against Israeli cities during the Hezbollah–Israel war of early 2006. A new regime in Syria led by Sunni Muslims will certainly put an end to this weapons conduit if for no other reason than Hezbollah has supported Assad’s effort to suppress the rebellion.
The Assad regime — in a unilateral effort to place pressure on Israel, but also as an outgrowth of its support for Iran — has additionally hosted a number of Palestinian militant groups that receive weapons and training from Iran. These groups include the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Both groups have lost their bases in Syria as a consequence of the rebellion there. Hamas left voluntarily because it is a Sunni Muslim group and has taken sides with the Sunni rebels in Syria. (Note: Hamas once enjoyed economic and logistic support from Damascus, but has broken ties with the Assad regime given its strong-armed efforts to oppress the Sunni-led opposition movement in Syria.) In contrast, the PFLP-GC of Ahmad Jibril was mostly expelled from Syria when the rebels seized control of the Damascus district of Yarmuk in December 2012, which housed the PFLP-GC headquarters.
The loss of its ally Assad, as well as the departure from Syria of the militant groups it supports, will directly and materially reduce Iran’s ability to threaten Israel on its borders. Iran, of course, still maintains its own missiles capable of striking Israel, and neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will necessarily end their struggles against Israel merely because Assad has fallen. But Iran’s ability to directly aid their fights will dramatically decline when Assad is gone. It is also likely that Hezbollah will face new constraints inside Lebanon once Assad falls, as he will no longer be able to protect the organization from the Sunni and some Christian factions that want to see it disarmed permanently.
Just as Iran will be injured by Assad’s fall, so too will the Shiite-led government in Iraq led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He has largely cast his lot with his allies in Tehran in seeking to help Assad defeat the rebellion. A prime example of Maliki’s support to Syria (and his collaboration with Iran) has been his permission for Iranian aircraft to transit Iraqi airspace in delivering weapons to Assad, in large measure as part of a strategy to prevent the emergence of a Sunni-led government in Damascus that is certain to support Iraq’s Sunni community and seek to squeeze Maliki’s government politically. The Iraqi Sunni community is increasingly restive and large demonstrations took place in December 2012 to try to compel Maliki to call early national elections. (For additional details on the array of factors that have the potential to rupture Iraq’s political system, we encourage you to read The Soufan Group’s January 2nd IntelBrief, Iraq’s Political Seams Tearing.)
Many of the Islamist fighters in Syria are Sunni extremists affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I). As Sunni fighters in Syria have prospered, so too has AQ-I become more active in Iraq itself, carrying out numerous complex, multi-city attacks during 2012. These attacks have been intended to demonstrate that Maliki is unable to protect the Iraqi people and to help Iraq’s Sunnis redress the imbalance of power there.
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