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.
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.
What Syria's neighbors want
If Syria falls into turmoil, analysts say that its neighbors – chiefly Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, but also the US and possibly even Israel – will try to influence an outcome that suits their respective interests:
- Iran will be looking for a state hostile to Israel and the West and willing to maintain the existing strategic relationship.
- Saudi Arabia will want Syria to abandon its ties to Iran, limit Tehran’s influence in Lebanon, and return fully to the Arab fold.
- The US will aspire for a democratic secular Syria open to the West and peace with Israel
- Israel’s primary concern is to prevent the country falling into the hands of Islamist Sunnis, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
It has long been a paradox of the Arab-Israeli conflict that Syria is one of the most ardent opponents of the Jewish state, yet its joint frontier, which includes the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has barely seen a shot fired in anger since the October 1973 war. Successive Israeli governments rail against Syria’s alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, yet they also tacitly acknowledge that the tough secular regime in Damascus is preferable to potential alternatives.
“To Israel, the great advantage of Assad’s regime is its lack of daring and its tendency to avoid risk and direct conflict,” wrote Israeli columnist Aluf Benn in the daily Haaretz newspaper last week.
Syria, Iran, Hezbollah vying for influence in Lebanon
Any changes in Syria will certainly have an impact in Lebanon, which has traditionally fallen within the influence of its larger neighbor to the east. During its three-decade alliance with Syria, Iran generally respected the prerogative of Damascus in Lebanese affairs. That changed from 2005, however, when Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon following the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.
Iran swiftly filled the vacuum left by the Syrians and helped its ally Hezbollah emerge as the dominant political player in Lebanon. Now, after several years of regional and international isolation, Syria has begun to reassert its influence in Lebanon. This has generated some friction with Iran and Hezbollah, neither of which are willing to return to playing a subordinate role to Damascus.
If a collapse of the Assad regime leads to the emergence of a stable Sunni-dominated order, “it would represent a clear and severe blow to Hezbollah, Iran and to some degree Hamas,” says a Lebanese political analyst who requested anonymity because of the tensions in Lebanon generated by the Syria crisis. The analyst added that a Sunni regime in Syria would attempt to cut off Iran’s access to Lebanon and reduce Hezbollah’s influence.
For now, most Lebanese are fearful of the crisis in Syria spilling across the border. There have been several pro-Assad demonstrations in Beirut, which led to minor clashes on Sunday. Last week, seven Estonian tourists on a cycling holiday in Syria and Lebanon were kidnapped in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Their bicycles and bags were left on the side of the road, and the Estonians have not been seen since.