The Fall of the House of Assad?

Bashar al-Assad has not yet fallen. I note this only because of the tone of inevitability in some news reports on Syria's civil war. The downfall of Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi may be no more predictive than a roulette ball falling on red in the last three spins. Arguably, the popular convulsion in the Middle East began not in Tunisia in late 2010 but in Teheran in mid-2009, when the Iranian regime—Assad's patron—crushed a popular revolution and erased the immense hopes it had raised.

Still, it would be foolish to bet heavily on Assad's long-term survival as Syria's leader. His forces may have retaken rebel-held suburbs of Damascus this week, but armed rebels holding suburbs of a capital even for a few days is the political equivalent of a tubercular cough.

Wagering on when the regime will crumble or what will replace it is equally risky. Assad has already defied Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's December prediction that the Syrian regime had only "weeks" left. Assad and the Alawite minority's rule could last into 2013 or beyond but are "doomed in the long run," writes Joshua Landis, an American expert and editor of the Syria Comment blog— an evaluation made more damning by Landis's pro-Assad reputation. Then again, a Lebanese expert suggested to me this week that the Alawite-led army might try to follow the Egyptian example, sacrificing the dictator so that it can remain the real power. A Sunni takeover, perhaps by the Muslim Brotherhood, is also possible—or a sectarian war of all against all.

But this is certain: When a tubercular cough racks Syria, the Middle East shakes. The country's location and its entanglement in other people's politics guarantee that. The war inside Syria is already having an impact outside. Its outcome will have stronger effects, which in turn will force America to adjust its policies in the region. Here's a brief and partial rundown on where things stand in the region:

Lebanon:  "Cold war" is the term used by Lebanese experts to describe the country's politics. The pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian front led by Hezbollah is on one side; the pro-Western and pro-Saudi front is on the other. Over the last ten months, their verbal sparring has gotten much nastier, says political scientist Hilal Khashan of Beirut’s American University.

The hot war in Syria has also splashed over the border. The Free Syrian Army rebels who have held  the Syrian town of Zabadani are based just across the border in Lebanon; Syrians wounded by government forces have been treated in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah snipers are reportedly fighting on the government's side in Syria, and the Shiite organization has allegedly tried to apprehend Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon—albeit keeping a low profile to avoid embarrassing the Beirut government.

The Syrian endgame could have a much stronger impact on Lebanon. The rebel Syrian National Council has already promised to review Syria's relations with Iran and Hezbollah, notes Elias Muhanna, a blogger on Lebanese politics and visiting scholar at Stanford University. Muhanna says the Shiite organization has its own "vast sources of revenue" and won't fade away. But it would no longer have Damascus to back it up. Other experts note that Hezbollah's main arms supply route would be broken.

In the best case, suggests Khashan, Lebanon might be able to return to the internal balance between sectarian communities that prevailed until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war drew the country "against its will into the problems of the region." It could stop being an arena where foreign powers wrestle.

Hamas and Gaza: Hamas is the Palestinian child of the Muslim Brotherhood. But in two ways it has been out of sync with the Brotherhood for decades, explains Iyad Barghouti, an expert on political Islam and head of the Ramallah Center for Human Rights. The Brotherhood abjured armed resistance, until Hamas was created as an armed group when the first Palestinian uprising broke out in 1987. And despite its Sunni character, it has been aligned with Alawite Damascus and Shiite Tehran.

The Syrian crisis broke that alignment. Unwilling to support the regime, Hamas has gradually dismantled its headquarters in Damascus. Some of the organization's former Damascus cadre have moved to Gaza, the toehold of historic Palestine that the organization rules.

Barghouti attributes outgoing Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's recent visit to Jordan, his statements about moving from armed to "popular" resistance (meaning mass protests) and his reconciliation talks with Mahmoud Abbas's government in Ramallah to Hamas's need for new partners: Abbas, Jordan, and the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. To rule Egypt, the Brotherhood needs respectability in Washington—which doesn't go with Hamas attacks on Israel.

Let me note: This analysis assumes that Washington that can engage with the Brotherhood rather than treating any Islamic government as inherently hostile—and that there will still be an American administration capable of this next year.

Israel:  A weaker Hezbollah would clearly be in Israel's interests. A shift by Hamas to moderate partners and more pragmatic goals should also be a gain for Israel. But it's doubtful that the current Israeli government will acknowledge or exploit the change.

And could a new Syrian regime reach peace with Israel? "Let's face it: The Assad regime has been eager for the past several years to reach an agreement with the Israelis," Khashan says. A post-revolutionary government, he argues, would be more concerned with domestic problems.

The opposite possibility is raised by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's chief negotiator with Syria in the mid-1990s and author of The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East, 1948-2011. Stressing that the scenario requires several leaps, he says that if the Syrian revolution succeeds, and it produces a more moderate regime, that government might follow the example of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s: Offering to move to the pro-American camp in return for help getting back the land that Israel conquered in 1967. "That would create stronger U.S. pressure on Israel" to give up the Golan Heights for peace, he says.  

Again, I'll point out that the scenario includes one more speculative assumption: that when this happens, there's an American administration able to identify a potentially moderate regime and willing to pressure Israel.

Iran and Turkey: The Syrian crisis has already hurt the pro-Iranian coalition in the Middle East. Tehran, says Rabinovich, "is in danger of losing a most important ally and proxy."

Meanwhile, another power also sees the battle in Syria as a proxy war, says Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. "Turkey is dead-set on overthrowing Assad," he says. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is not only Iran's rival as a non-Arab power in the region. Erdogan is also actively marketing a "Turkish model combining Islam with a certain measure of democracy" to the Arab world, competing with the Iranian model of a radical, clerical Islamic state.

If the Syrian rebels succeed, Liel says, they will need to draw on Turkey's experience to run their country. If Assad survives, he will be even more deeply in debt to his Iranian patrons.

In that proxy conflict, a pragmatic and humanitarian American approach would stress diplomatic efforts for a quick resolution without U.S. military involvement. Diplomatically and financially, it would also favor Turkey's efforts to shape the era after the fall of the house of Assad. Such pragmatism requires being able to see a government led by an elected, moderate Islamic party as an American ally.

As the thoroughly unpredictable battle plays out in Syria, the current administration will need to make the case for such nuanced pragmatism. Depending on how long the Syrian conflict lasts, an unpredictable American election campaign may determine whether an administration capable of that is in place when the battle ends.

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