TSG IntelBrief: The Implications of Change in Syria Part 2
January 8, 2013
This is the second of a two-part series that will explore the complex dynamics surrounding 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 will launch a wave of cascading effects throughout the region…and beyond. In The Implications of Change in Syria Part 1, we focused on how Iran and Iraq are likely to be effected. In Part 2, we turn to potential consequences for Israel and the major global powers.
As of early January 2013, the immediate implications for Israel of a collapse of the Assad regime remains a substantial concern — and a major question — for the leadership in Jerusalem, the Obama Administration and Congress in the United States, and policymakers throughout the Middle East region, even though the effects might not be determined for several years. Israel has fought several wars with Syria, including the 1973 war that was orchestrated, in large part, by Bashar al Assad’s father, then-Syrian President Hafez al Assad. Yet, since the 1973 war, Israel has been able to count on a tense but relatively stable border with Syria as the Assad family has upheld its obligations to that stability under the US-brokered disengagement agreements reached in the immediate years after that war.
On the one hand, Israel will be heartened to see a regime emerge in Damascus that severs Syria’s alliance with Iran and stops the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. The fall of the Assad regime will also, at least temporarily, remove from Israel’s border the last major Arab army capable of conducting a significant armor-based war. The rebellion has virtually destroyed Syria’s tank force along with much of its air assets, and will no doubt involve the dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons programs under international supervision. In a best-case scenario — at least from an Israeli perspective — a new Syria might be governed by a secular democracy that is amenable to reopening peace negotiations over the Golan Heights that Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war.
Of real concern for leaders in Jerusalem is that the collapse of Assad will present Israel with a far less predictable neighbor. If secular, democratic forces prevail in a post-Assad power struggle, there is a chance for a settlement of the aforementioned Israeli-Syrian dispute over the Golan Heights along with an array of other simmering issues. In contrast, if Islamic extremists prevail in Syria, then a border that Israel has long considered stable could turn hostile as Israel faces an additional Islamic faction across its national boundaries.
Looking to the near geopolitical horizon, Israel must prepare for several alternative realities. Syria could continue to be a neighbor that, like the Assad regime, would seek to regain control of lost territory but is opposed to negotiations to accomplish that objective. There is no certainty in Jerusalem that a successor regime in Syria — particularly one in which Islamic extremist groups play a major role — will commit to keeping the Syrian side of the border quiet. One probable and potentially grave national security challenge results from the numerous Syrian missiles and rockets that have fallen into the hands of Islamist extremist rebel factions in the course of capturing major Syrian bases: it is entirely possible these groups could employ this weaponry to prosecute jihad against Israel.
In such a scenario, Israel would face yet another hostile, rocket-armed faction across its border, as it now does across the Gaza border with Hamas and the Lebanese border with Hezbollah. It is also possible that some of the rebel groups might capture all or part of Syria’s considerable — and exceptionally lethal — chemical arsenal, potentially setting up a treacherous nightmare scenario for Israel.
In one of the few potential upsides (a relative term in the world of geopolitics), the fall of Assad is likely to ease the lingering tensions that have existed on this issue between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other. Since the uprising broke out in early 2011, the US has sought — through key surrogates, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar — to oust Assad. Russia, backed by China, has tirelessly maneuvered to thwart the US strategy at every turn in an effort to keep an old Soviet-era ally, the Assad family, in power.
Moscow perceives the fall of the Assad regime as an outcome that would further diminish Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Previously, US forces had removed another longtime Soviet/Russian ally — Saddam Hussein of Iraq — and have had a degree of success in stabilizing Afghanistan, an achievement that stands in stark contrast with the failed Soviet experience there.
Still, the United States must diligently manage a broad and complex agenda with both Russia and China — including common interests in containing Iran — and US relations with these two strategically important nations are likely to focus on other substantive and far-reaching issues after Assad falls from power. This is not to say that the outcome in Syria is not of importance to the major powers; nonetheless, policymakers in each of these nations are acutely aware of the fact that the conflict in Syria, regardless of how it plays out, remains but one of a number of crises that has engaged the interests, resources, and patience of the international community.
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