July 18, 2006
The Syrian OptionBy Ed Lasky
As Israel battles the Shiite terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, many analysts have begun to wonder if there is another enemy that should be directly engaged: Syria. A harmonic convergence of factors has anathematized one of the most problematic regimes in the Middle East and indeed the world.
Syria is the transshipment point for the tons of Iranian weapons (particularly the missiles that are raining down upon Israel and the one that heavily damaged an Israeli ship) and trained military personnel that have emboldened Hezbollah and allowed them to create a 'state within a state' in Lebanon.
Even though Syrian military forces were compelled to leave Syria after their complicity in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri was all but made clear, the Syrians have continued to held sway over vast swaths of Lebanon — their various tentacles reaching out through Hezbollah. Syrian agents also have engaged in the assassination of reformers and anti—Syrian opponents. Terror has been virtually cost—free for Syria, and until the Assad regime is made to pay the price for its promotion of terror, Israel's current operations may prove to be futile — a temporary palliative followed by a resumption of Hezbollah rule in southern Lebanon.
Syria has few friends in the world today. Basically, Iran is it. Arab nations issued a startling denunciation of Hezbollah over the weekend, and by implication, Syria. America has, of course, long opposed Syria and has a long bill of particulars against Hezbollah involving the many Americans killed by the group. Even France, angry over the murder of Hariri (a personal friend of Chirac) has become somewhat hostile to Syria (even to the point of complaining that America was being too conciliatory to Syria). France also became progressively angry over the looting of Lebanon, a former colony with a large Catholic population, by the Assad regime.
Not so incidentally, Syria has no oil exports that could roil the markets.
The Syrian friendship with Iran is a millstone around Assad's neck. A tectonic shift within the region may encourage Israel in its efforts to deal harshly with Syria. The declarations issued by Arabs were, metaphorically, a Sunni fatwa directed against Shiites. The greatest fault line in the Mideast (which is rent by many fault lines) is the division between the 'world of Shia' and the 'world of Sunni.'
The split within Islam occurred centuries ago and has engendered great conflict between the two sects throughout the region for a dozen centuries or so. We, of course, see the daily attacks between the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq; but, similar conflicts and violence beset Pakistan, the Gulf nations that have large populations of Shiites, Iran, and Lebanon (where the Shiites are 20—25% of the population, the rest being split between a large number of Sunnis, Catholic Maronites, and Druze).
The ascendancy of Iran (not just a Shiite power but also a Persian nation with a culture and history radically different from the Arab nations) has clearly disconcerted the Sunnis.Undoubtedly some worry beads are being roughly handled these days in the center of Sunni power, Saudi Arabia. Iran is just across the Arab Gulf (tellingly called the 'Persian Gulf' by the Iranians) from Saudi Arabia. A Shiite regime seems to be in power in Iraq. Shiites are a large minority in Saudi Arabia, and live in the vulnerable oil—rich region near Iraq. Shiites are a majority to the population of Bahrain, though they are ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Finally, of course, Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons, the possession of which will increase the possibility of their hegemony over the region. The Sunnis have a reason to fear the increasing power and radicalization of the Shias.
This dynamic effects Syria. The Assad family is a member of the Alawite religious group, a small minority within the Sunni population of Syria and, importantly, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam. One of the reasons Syria has had a rejectionist stance towards Israel is probably related to the Assad family's desire to prove their Arab credentials and deflect attention from their Shiite roots. This is one reason the Assads have mortgaged their future to an alliance with Iran and why Arab Sunni nations are not coming to the aid of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors. Why strengthen the Shiites?
Instead, the Sunni world would probably welcome Israeli success against the Alawite regime. The Syrians themselves have long rankled under the rule of the Alawites who occupy key positions throughout government and business. (As is true of all minority regimes in the region, plum positions are extended to embers of the family and clan). As much as the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians may loathe the Israelis, geopolitics makes strange bedfellows. Israel does not worry them; Iran and the rise of Shia powers do.
Therefore, what is to be done?
We can hope that Israel will accomplish its mission of weakening Hezbollah power in Lebanon. However, given the fecklessness of the Lebanon government to date, a return of the Lebanon Army to the South (as is required by UN Resolution559) is certainly no guarantee of a quiet border. Infiltration can recur, politicians bribed, willpower can weaken. And then Israel will have radical Shiites on its borders again.
The longer the Lebanon violence continues, the more Catholics will be injured, invoking pressure from Christian powers (the Vatican has already issued denunciations). Lebanon has a comparatively large diaspora that might pressure governments to bring a halt to Israeli actions. Since Lebanon is a prime vacation destination, nationals of other nations may be hurt or killed causing additional enmity (a group of Canadian Lebanese were recently accidentally killed). Israel's attacks against Lebanon risk inflaming tension between the Lebanese and the Israelis. An additional hostile nation on the north is not a pleasant prospect to contemplate. None of these factors exist if Syria is the object of attack.
A more effective long—term strategy would be to focus on the Assad regime. Many of the supporters of the regime lost money when the Assad regime pulled out of Lebanon, which was a honey pot for the Syrian overlords. Extortion, money laundering, smuggling, black market operations, drug dealing, counterfeiting: such was the reality of the Lebanese economy as created by its Syrian rulers.
Many Syrian Sunnis would be eager to push Alawites out from key positions. Assad is widely recognized as being weak (see "Basher Assad: The Evil Moron who's Running Syria'). But a decapitation strike against him and his leading supporters would be difficult to execute.
However, the strategy that America used to dislodge Slobodan Milosevic from his lair in Yugoslavia might be a tactic worth pursuing. In that case, key supporters of the regime were identified and their assets were targeted for confiscation and destruction. An aerial bombing campaign ensued: factories, warehouses, and other targets of opportunity and lucre, were bombed. Within a relatively brief time, Milosevic 'supporters' delivered him to NATO forces.
Jordan would not come to the help of Assad, since the Assad family has threatened the Hussein family's rule in the past. Assad's father, Hafiz Assad, sent armed forces to intimidate and possibly overthrow the Hussein royal family many years ago. Ironically, an Israeli show of force dissuaded the Syrians from pursuing this tack.
Relations with many groups in Lebanon would also be bolstered since the Lebanese both loathe and fear the Assad regime and would no doubt rejoice as their former overseers face defeat. As recently as last year, France pushed America to work for regime change in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia would be more than happy to see Assad fall (the Saudi royal family was very close to Hariri, and there are even rumors that he was the illegitimate son of one of the royals). A Sunni regime in Syria could count on the largesse of the Saudis, and such financial encouragement (bribes) might be a factor in helping to precipitate a revolt against Basher.
The stars are aligning as they rarely do in the Middle East. When was the last time France, America (under the most assertively Israel—suppoerting president ever), Israel and the Sunni nations agreed on a common enemy? Failure to grasp such an opportunity would be a failure to grasp an opportunity to bring peace to the region.
There might be an argument that a Sunni regime in Syria would still be a threat to Israel. However, in the near term, Iran and the rise of Shiite radicalism is a greater threat than Sunni terrorism. Saudi Arabia, the prime paymaster of Sunni radicals, has probably cut back its support over the years (not enough) to protect its own regime. The Saudis do not have a bomb, nor are they likely to be able to build one for some time, barring an Iranian bomb that would prompt them to seek one. Concentrating on the near—term threats might be an appropriate tactic to follow.
Israeli air attacks against the infrastructure of Assad's rule would be met with wide criticism from the cast of usual suspects. However, the image of Israel willing to flex its power would help to restore its deterrence. There will be no threat of an oil embargo. Iran is too dependent on its oil revenues to survive and Gulf oil nations certainly will not move to help the Assad regime. Syria would no longer be part of the transmission belt extending Shiite dominance throughout the region.
Severed from the land line of Syria, Hezbollah would have a very difficult time replenishing its stores. With luck, the Lebanese army will have enough willpower to at least stop some naval shipments of weapons. These are clearly easier to interdict than large shipments smuggled over the border with Syria. Iran is not contiguous with Syria and would have a difficult time coming directly to its support, which would have the further fringe benefit of embarrassing the Iranians.
While the outcomes of battles are never certain, many believe that Syria would be no match for the Israeli Defense Forces. The Israeli Air Force, stocked with top of the line US made military aircraft and updated with best—in—the—world avionics, targeting and weapon systems, would clearly have mastery of the sky. The last time (granted 25 years ago) the two nations battled in the air, Israel shot down 86 Syrian aircraft with the loss of none of its own. There would be little reason to expect that Syrian capabilities have improved relative to Israeli advances since then. The breakup of their patron, the Soviet Union, undoubtedly set back the modernization of their armed forces. Israeli weapons and weapons technology are now eagerly sought by military forces from around the world and have become a major export for Israel.
The wild card would be Syrian missiles. Rumors circulated that Saddam Hussein had shipped weapons of mass destruction to Syria before his fall. Clearly, the Syrians have developed some indigenous capability in the area of missile development. However, now might still be the best time to strike Syria. The Assad regime is isolated and has few friends other than Iran.
Israel still has a nuclear deterrent should WMD be launched. Neither Syria nor Iran could counter a nuclear threat. Even aside from these considerations, advanced messages could be delivered to the Syrian military that their assets (and lives) might be spared if they cooperate in a coup against Assad. Rather than face humiliation at the hands of the Israelis, they might choose to unseat Assad and his Alawite regime. This might be encouraged by sotto voce offers of aid (and bribes) from America and Saudi Arabia, the other nations that desire the ouster of Assad and a halt to the expansion of Iranian hegemony. Iran has curried favor with Syria by supplying it with cheap oil, a form of leverage that can easily be replicated by oil—rich Gulf nations.
Israel has always survived by surprise: a prime doctrine, whether stated or not, of the Israeli Defense Forces is that unexpected tactical moves can bring about large scale and enduring strategic benefits.
It is time to return to the past.
Ed Lasky is news editor of The American Thinker.