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What is at stake if Syria's regime falls

Syria is a gateway for Iran's influence in the Middle East, but it has also been a relatively predictable neighbor for Israel. If Assad's regime comes unhinged, that could all change.

By Correspondent / March 28, 2011

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad shout slogans in Syria's northern city of Aleppo March 27.

George Ourfalian/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not alone in keeping a wary eye on the two weeks of protests in his country that have left dozens dead and show little sign of abating.

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If Syria collapses into Libya-style chaos or Mr. Assad is ousted like his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, it will have major strategic ramifications on Syria’s close regional allies – Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – and possibly alter the balance of power in the Middle East. Even opponent Israel is watching the unrest with some trepidation, as Syria has been a hostile but predictable neighbor.

Despite having frail economy, rampant corruption, few natural resources, a growing population, and rising unemployment, Syria has a proven ability to punch above its weight, exerting influence in key hot spots in the region – Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories – and has become a gateway for Iran to extend its reach into the Middle East.

“A new regime in Syria definitely will have an effect [on the region], but it depends on the nature of the new regime,” says Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. “Syria holds the cards of Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, and whatever regime rules in Syria, it will not want to throw away those cards for nothing.”

Why Syria is the linchpin

Syria is the geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, granting Tehran a toehold on Israel’s northern border. Syria and Iran provide the bulk of Hezbollah’s massive arsenal of guided rockets, antitank missiles and mortar shells that allegedly enter Lebanon via the rugged mountainous border with Syria.

Last year, a top Israeli intelligence officer said that the huge quantity of arms sent to Hezbollah via Syria could no longer be described as smuggling but was an “organized and official transfer” of weapons." If the Syrian border is shut to Hezbollah, it would complicate the group’s ability to fill its arsenals, especially if there is another war with Israel.

Furthermore, when weighing the possibility of a confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel has to analyze whether the conflict could escalate and draw in Syria. The Syrian Army may be no match for the Israeli military, but the regime has invested heavily in recent years in long-range rockets, which could reach targets throughout Israel. It has also invested in antiaircraft and antitank weaponry to dent Israel’s superiority in the air and on the ground.

The country has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and by the Assad dynasty since 1970. Although the Syrian state is nominally secular, the Assad clan and the core of the regime are drawn from the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), which accounts for about 15 percent of the population in the majority Sunni-populated country.

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