Experts: Assad's ouster could prompt widespread chaos, violence

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2011 

WASHINGTON — It took six days of protests for President Barack Obama to urge former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to begin a transition from power "now." It took a month of onslaughts against non-violent demonstrators for him to declare that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi "needs to go."

But although more than 350 people have been killed by tank-backed troops, police and thugs in nearly 50 days of anti-regime protests across Syria, Obama has refused to embrace the opposition's demand for an end to one of the world's longest-ruling, most brutal dictatorships.

Here's the difference: many experts think that Obama — as well as European, Israeli and Arab leaders — are loath to do anything that could further weaken President Bashar Assad. That's because they're afraid that his downfall could ignite a paroxysm of chaos and violence that could spread beyond Syria, shaking the Middle East.

"What is happening now in Syria is much bigger than any other revolution or uprising that has happened in the Arab world," said Hassan Nafa, a political science professor at Cairo University. "The consequences will be very dangerous."

Moreover, it is unclear what would follow the Assad dynasty. The family heads a regime dominated by Alawites, a minority Shiite Muslim sect that has ruthlessly ruled the Sunni Muslim-majority country through the Baath Party, the secret police and army, big business and organized crime since Assad's father seized power in a 1963 coup.

But as objectionable as the regime is, the United States, the Europeans, regional powers like Saudi Arabia, and even Syria's foe, Israel, may prefer the repressive clique they know over one they don't, especially if there is a chance that hard-line Islamists could take over, analysts said.

Moreover, Obama may be deferring to the Saudis, who were furious that he abandoned their fellow despot, Mubarak, so quickly.

"The Saudis and the Israelis are not eager to see change in Syria, and undoubtedly the administration is hearing from them," said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "In Syria, there is still a question mark as to whether there will be change or whether this uprising will be put down."

Concerns that Assad's downfall could lead to unwanted consequences also are rooted in Syria's location, foreign policies and history.

Bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, Syria sits at the nexus of the Middle East's most intractable feuds and issues.

"Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East," noted Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who authors the authoritative blog, Syria Comment.

The country is a leading opponent of peace with Israel, with which it lost major conflicts in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982. It officially remains at war with the Jewish state, which refuses to return the strategic Golan Heights, rolling hills perfect for tank warfare that it captured from Syria in 1967.

Years of U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to broker a Syrian-Israeli peace have failed. It is unclear whether progress could be made if Assad is forced out because any successor is expected to remain hostile to Israel, experts said.

Iran is Syria's closest ally. Together, they have worked to thwart U.S. policies in the region. They also have waged a low-level proxy war with Israel that has helped obstruct Israeli-Palestinian peace, with Syria serving as a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement that controls Gaza.

Syria also is a trans-shipment point for missiles and other arms that Iran supplies to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement that dominates Lebanon's coalition government. Hezbollah's armed wing is stronger than the Lebanese Army and reportedly has thousands of missiles capable of hitting much of Israel.

Syria is widely suspected of having a role in the 2005 assassination of pro-West former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an event that forced an end to a 29-year Syrian military occupation. But working through Hezbollah and its coalition allies, as well as through extensive intelligence and financial networks, Damascus has regained enough clout in Lebanon to be able to fan its seething sectarian tensions.

Assad's regime played a significant role in the insurgency in Iraq, allowing Islamic militants to transit Syria to fight U.S.-led forces until it shut down its border with Iraq under U.S. pressure. But the regime's ouster could see Syria again become a springboard for terrorist operations — and arms flows — into Iraq just as the last 40,000 American troops are preparing to leave.

"The United States has just spent eight years trying to stabilize Iraq," said Landis. "To break open Syria tends to go back to zero in Iraq."

Finally, Syria has figured in international concerns over the spread of nuclear weapons, refusing to allow U.N. inspectors to pursue an in-depth investigation into a suspected North Korean-supplied plutonium-producing reactor that was bombed by Israeli jets in September 2007.

Fears over the consequences of an Assad ouster also are rooted in the delicate patchwork of ethnic and religious groups that comprise Syria's 21 million-strong population.

Like Egypt's uprising, the anti-regime protests have featured calls for sectarian amity. And the ruthless suppression of Islamic militants — Assad's father is estimated to have massacred at least 10,000 people crushing a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982 — has eased concerns about the threat they pose.

Yet some experts are worried that Assad's decision Monday to send tanks and troops into Daraa, the southern city where the uprising erupted, raised the danger of civil war, warning that Sunnis who dominate the conscript-based army could begin deserting with their weapons.

Sectarian violence could follow, with attacks on Alawites and minorities favored by the regime, including Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population.

A civil war could see millions of people fleeing Syria, destabilizing the surrounding countries, especially Lebanon, which has its own serious sectarian tensions, or heading for Europe.

"If you bring down this regime, there will be protracted civil war," predicted Landis. "If it were to . . . fall into civil war, the winds of change would immediately hit Jordan and then the Arabian Peninsula."

(Hannah Allam in Cairo contributed to this article. )

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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