If Assad Falls, Who Wins in Syria?

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad took to the airwaves on Wednesday and addressed the Syrian people from the parliament.  He told them that Israel and Western powers including the United States are fomenting unrest in his country and trying to topple his regime.  According to Assad, "Plots are being hatched against our country ... Saboteurs are trying to undermine and divide Syria, and to push an Israeli agenda."

Assad has done everything in his power to contain dissent and squelch criticism of him and his government by intimidating reporters and throwing some of them out of the country.  Even so, to date more than 200 protesters in Syria have been wounded and more than 100 of them have been killed.  The protesters aren't giving up, and Assad knows it.  In Deraa last Friday, Syrian security forces fired tear gas into a crowd of more than a thousand people attending the funeral of two fellow countrymen who were killed in anti-government protests.

This is not the first time a Syrian dictator has attempted to crush a domestic disturbance that threatened to topple his regime.  Bashar al-Assad's father, former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, is best known for the Hama Massacre, a 1982 uprising among Syrian Sunni Muslims during which the elder Assad ordered his army to destroy the town of Hama.  Between 10,000 and 80,000 townspeople were killed, mostly civilians, and about 1,000 Syrian soldiers died.  Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, called the Hama Massacre "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East." (pp. 243-244)  No one knows for sure how many innocent civilians lost their lives in the Hama Massacre, but we do know this.  Since that time, Syrian dissidents, including the menacing Muslim Brotherhood, have remained ominously silent. 

Assad has been playing with fire since 2000 when he assumed his father's mantle by hosting a vast array of elite terrorist organizations including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hezb'allah and other radical Islamist splinter groups bent on destroying Israel and terrorizing Israeli citizens.  Each of these belligerent factions has set up field offices in Damascus where they plan their operations under the protection of Assad's Baathist regime.  They are independent, but they are loosely connected via faith in Islam.  Beneath that thin veneer, though, they are bitter enemies vying for control in the Arab world.  They stand to gain if Assad's brutal dictatorship falls, because they are poised and ready to step in and fill the vacuum.

Assad's nefarious strategy is fraught with risk.  He has tried to play all ends against the middle, not getting too close to any Islamist organization except Hezbollah, but staying close enough to all of them to influence decisions on an as needed basis.  On the international front, he has played Western powers against Iran, with Iran emerging recently as the easy winner in the ongoing diplomat struggle.

Iran presents an interesting dilemma for Assad since Syria and Lebanon are the only two Arab nations so far to openly embrace Shia Persian overtures.  The Syria-Iran connection has raised eyebrows and stoked fear in other Arab Muslim countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, because they view Iran as vying for supremacy in the entire Middle East and especially for control of the oil flowing out of the Middle East.  Assad's recent decision to allow Iran to build a naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia, Syria's leading port, created quite a stir.  Moderate Arab leaders' worst fears were realized within days of the announcement when a freighter sailing out of Latakia bound for Egypt carrying a cargo of Iranian weapons destined for Gaza was intercepted by the Israeli navy.  

If Assad and his Baathist brethren fall, Iran is in a position to intervene directly in the struggle for dominance in Syria or to determine which group or groups are allowed to take control.  In any event, other Arab nations stand to lose, and they know it.  Iran's presence in their midst is a horrifying reminder of days gone by when Persians ruled their ancestors.  That's something they don't want to see happen again, particularly now since Iran is predominantly Shia Muslim and they are mostly Sunni Muslim.  When Persians last ruled the Middle East, there was no Islam.

Assad's fall would raise some interesting questions about Iran's influence in Lebanon, particularly with Hezb'allah.  Iran already has strong ties with Hezb'allah.  If Assad loses control, Iran stands to gain greater access to and power in Lebanon, and any moderating effect of Syria's involvement with hard-line Hezb'allah chief Hassan Nasrallah would be eliminated. 

None of this bodes well for Israel, the United States, or Europe, so blaming Israel and the West for the unrest in Syria makes absolutely no sense.  That doesn't mean the message doesn't resonate with radical Islamist groups who blame Israel, in particular, for everything under the sun including shark attacks on swimmers in the Red Sea near Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

Bashar al-Assad is embroiled in a diplomatic game of chess that he doesn't completely comprehend, and his shenanigans are catching up with him.  The oppressed and brutalized people of Syria are fed up with his tyrannical ways.  That's Assad's real problem, and if he hopes to save his skin, he'll own up to it and change his ways.

Neil Snyder earned a Ph.D. degree in strategic management from the University of Georgia in 1979 and taught leadership and strategy at the University of Virginia for 25 years.  He retired from UVA in 2004 and is currently the Ralph A. Beeton Professor Emeritus at UVA.  His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. 

Cartoon by Ronny Gordon
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad took to the airwaves on Wednesday and addressed the Syrian people from the parliament.  He told them that Israel and Western powers including the United States are fomenting unrest in his country and trying to topple his regime.  According to Assad, "Plots are being hatched against our country ... Saboteurs are trying to undermine and divide Syria, and to push an Israeli agenda."

Assad has done everything in his power to contain dissent and squelch criticism of him and his government by intimidating reporters and throwing some of them out of the country.  Even so, to date more than 200 protesters in Syria have been wounded and more than 100 of them have been killed.  The protesters aren't giving up, and Assad knows it.  In Deraa last Friday, Syrian security forces fired tear gas into a crowd of more than a thousand people attending the funeral of two fellow countrymen who were killed in anti-government protests.

This is not the first time a Syrian dictator has attempted to crush a domestic disturbance that threatened to topple his regime.  Bashar al-Assad's father, former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, is best known for the Hama Massacre, a 1982 uprising among Syrian Sunni Muslims during which the elder Assad ordered his army to destroy the town of Hama.  Between 10,000 and 80,000 townspeople were killed, mostly civilians, and about 1,000 Syrian soldiers died.  Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, called the Hama Massacre "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East." (pp. 243-244)  No one knows for sure how many innocent civilians lost their lives in the Hama Massacre, but we do know this.  Since that time, Syrian dissidents, including the menacing Muslim Brotherhood, have remained ominously silent. 

Assad has been playing with fire since 2000 when he assumed his father's mantle by hosting a vast array of elite terrorist organizations including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hezb'allah and other radical Islamist splinter groups bent on destroying Israel and terrorizing Israeli citizens.  Each of these belligerent factions has set up field offices in Damascus where they plan their operations under the protection of Assad's Baathist regime.  They are independent, but they are loosely connected via faith in Islam.  Beneath that thin veneer, though, they are bitter enemies vying for control in the Arab world.  They stand to gain if Assad's brutal dictatorship falls, because they are poised and ready to step in and fill the vacuum.

Assad's nefarious strategy is fraught with risk.  He has tried to play all ends against the middle, not getting too close to any Islamist organization except Hezbollah, but staying close enough to all of them to influence decisions on an as needed basis.  On the international front, he has played Western powers against Iran, with Iran emerging recently as the easy winner in the ongoing diplomat struggle.

Iran presents an interesting dilemma for Assad since Syria and Lebanon are the only two Arab nations so far to openly embrace Shia Persian overtures.  The Syria-Iran connection has raised eyebrows and stoked fear in other Arab Muslim countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, because they view Iran as vying for supremacy in the entire Middle East and especially for control of the oil flowing out of the Middle East.  Assad's recent decision to allow Iran to build a naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia, Syria's leading port, created quite a stir.  Moderate Arab leaders' worst fears were realized within days of the announcement when a freighter sailing out of Latakia bound for Egypt carrying a cargo of Iranian weapons destined for Gaza was intercepted by the Israeli navy.  

If Assad and his Baathist brethren fall, Iran is in a position to intervene directly in the struggle for dominance in Syria or to determine which group or groups are allowed to take control.  In any event, other Arab nations stand to lose, and they know it.  Iran's presence in their midst is a horrifying reminder of days gone by when Persians ruled their ancestors.  That's something they don't want to see happen again, particularly now since Iran is predominantly Shia Muslim and they are mostly Sunni Muslim.  When Persians last ruled the Middle East, there was no Islam.

Assad's fall would raise some interesting questions about Iran's influence in Lebanon, particularly with Hezb'allah.  Iran already has strong ties with Hezb'allah.  If Assad loses control, Iran stands to gain greater access to and power in Lebanon, and any moderating effect of Syria's involvement with hard-line Hezb'allah chief Hassan Nasrallah would be eliminated. 

None of this bodes well for Israel, the United States, or Europe, so blaming Israel and the West for the unrest in Syria makes absolutely no sense.  That doesn't mean the message doesn't resonate with radical Islamist groups who blame Israel, in particular, for everything under the sun including shark attacks on swimmers in the Red Sea near Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

Bashar al-Assad is embroiled in a diplomatic game of chess that he doesn't completely comprehend, and his shenanigans are catching up with him.  The oppressed and brutalized people of Syria are fed up with his tyrannical ways.  That's Assad's real problem, and if he hopes to save his skin, he'll own up to it and change his ways.

Neil Snyder earned a Ph.D. degree in strategic management from the University of Georgia in 1979 and taught leadership and strategy at the University of Virginia for 25 years.  He retired from UVA in 2004 and is currently the Ralph A. Beeton Professor Emeritus at UVA.  His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. 

Cartoon by Ronny Gordon