July 30, 2012 | Quote
If Assad Falls, Who Wins?
UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has warned, “Syria is not Libya — it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders.” With a bomb recently killing four of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and heavy fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, many experts believe a turning point has been reached in Syria. While it might not be the end-game yet for Mr. Assad, some analysts are considering the implications should he fall — the potential for violence, the shift in the balance of power in the region and the global repercussions. Who would be the likely major winners and losers if Mr. Assad is ousted, asks Michael Higgins.
If Mr. Assad falls without any intervention, the U.S. will get a lot of credit. “Even if it had no effect, it will appear that it did,” wrote Stratfor analyst George Friedman. This “will enhance the ability of the United States to influence events in other countries without actually having to intervene,” he adds. Further, if Turkey was to play a bigger role in Iraq (because of its pipeline interests) it would need to move into a “position of balancing Iran.” “This relieves the United States of the burden of containing Iran,” he said. Mr. Neriah also noted, “It is in the national interest of the U.S. and the West to cultivate relations with the emerging Syria in order to provide a safe rear to Iraq and, most importantly, to contain Iran.”
“The Qataris have emerged as the quiet kingmakers,” wrote Shashank Joshi, of Harvard University, and Jason Pack, from Cambridge University, this year. In Libya, Qatar played a major military and intelligence role, and on Syria it has been aggressive in calling for Mr. Assad to step down, prominent in a diplomatic role and a leading backer of the rebels. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, pictured, is “looking like a highly adept statesman,” they wrote. If Mr. Assad was to be dethroned, the ever-expanding influence of Qatar would only increase.
The Sunni group has failed to back the Assad regime, causing Iran to withdraw funding. Hamas has also pulled its external leaders from Damascus. However, Jonathan Schanzer reports for Foreign Policy magazine that Hamas has since benefited from Qatari and Turkey funding. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has also “energized” Hamas, he says. The fall of Mr. Assad and the rise of a Sunni regime would be advantageous to Hamas. But Mr. Schanzer warns, “True, Hamas’s new donors could moderate its politics. This is certainly the line that Turkey and Qatar will take. But more likely, the increased cash flow to Hamas will herald a new wave of rejectionism and — given Hamas’ track record — possibly a new wave of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Turkey has announced plans for pipelines in Iraq to oil fields in the south and in the north. “Turkey does not want to militarily involve itself in Iraq, but it does want political influence to guarantee its interests,” wrote Mr. Friedman. If Iranian influence in Iraq was on the decline — after the ousting of Mr. Assad — it would provide opportunities for Turkey. “Thus, just as the Iranians are in retreat, the Turks have an interest in, if not supplanting them, certainly supplementing them,” wrote Mr. Friedman. However, Turkey would have to deal with the rise of Syrian Kurds and the potential for them to align with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorist group. Michael Young, a Mideast expert, told the Council of Foreign Relations, “The Turks will play a very key role in what type of post-Assad state exists in Syria… 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
China and Russia
“But perhaps the most important losers will be Russia and China,” Mr. Friedman said in his analysis. Both countries have backed the regime and opposed sanctions and intervention by the UN and the Arab League. “The Russian and Chinese hope has been that the United States would continue to treat them as secondary issues while it focused on the Middle East. The decline of Mr. Assad and the resulting dynamic in the region increases the possibility that the United States can disengage from the region. This is not something the Russians or Chinese want, but in the end, they did not have the power to create the outcome in Syria that they had wanted.”
Iran has invested troops, weapons and resources in the Assad regime and needs it to stay in power to maintain a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to Lebanon. George Friedman, an analyst with Stratfor, a U.S. global intelligence company, wrote this week that the fall of Mr. Assad would be a strategic blow to the Iranians in two ways. “First, the wide-reaching sphere of influence they were creating clearly won’t happen now. Second, Iran will rapidly move from being an ascendant power to a power on the defensive.” If Iran was seen to be a waning power this could have an impact on the psychology of Iraqi politicians who might be emboldened to defy Iranian influence in the country, wrote Mr. Friedman.
Lebanon’s powerful Shiite group has publicly tied its future to Mr. Assad. The fall of Mr. Assad would deprive the group of its strategic partner and main supply line for its arsenal. “Hezbollah is at a point of enormous strategic uncertainty. [Syria’s uprising] is not an existential threat, they are too well armed. But now they face a threat from two sides,” a Western diplomat in Lebanon told Reuters, referring to Hezbollah’s foe Israel and a potentially hostile post-Assad Syria. “What is happening now is fateful for them,” Lebanese analyst Jihad al-Zein also told Reuters. “They do not have a choice — they are with the regime until the last minute. This is a strategic alliance between Iran and Syria and they are part of it.”
“A major loser in this is Israel,” Mr. Friedman wrote for Stratfor. Syria and Israel fought two wars, in 1967 and 1973, but Israel appears to have maintained an understanding with Mr. Assad that allowed him to dominate Lebanon in return for restraining Hezbollah. “But the possibility of either an Islamist regime in Damascus or, more likely, Lebanese-style instability cannot please the Israelis,” wrote Mr. Friedman. Some Israeli officials fear that a power vacuum in Damascus could turn the Golan Heights into a haven for terrorist groups. Israel also fears that Hezbollah could try to raid Syrian weapons arsenals under the cover of chaos ensuing from a possible regime collapse. “A change of regime, and certainly to a militant one, would not be to Israel’s advantage, especially if the new Syrian regime would try to ‘warm up’ the border with Israel in order to divert public opinion from domestic problems,” Jacques Neriah, formerly foreign policy advisor to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said in a report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.