Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Syrian uprising and the region

Writing in the Guardian, Zeki Chehab argues:

“The fall of the Assad regime would mean the loss of Iran's only ally in the region and thus a weakening of the clerical regime.”

Chehab appears to hint that it would also mean the end of Syrian support for fellow Iran allies Hamas and Hizbullah (Hamas, we are told, is looking for new headquarters to replace Damascus). He notes that “Analysts say that Assad's tacit support [for Palestinian factions] comes not from interest in Arab causes but a desire to gather cards to play against the US and Israel in negotiations to win back the Golan Heights.
Further into the piece he writes:

“Meanwhile, behind closed doors, leaders in Israel fear the fall of Assad could lead to the rise of a conservative Islamic regime. An end to the fragile stability of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, is a particular worry. Leaking of the news that Tel Aviv fears the Golan front could erupt again came as a surprise to many in the Arab world in light of the declared enmity between Israel and the Ba'ath regime.”

So on the one hand he argues that should Assad fall, Syria would likely withdraw from the so-called resistance axis, despite the fact that its membership is likely predicated not on regime ideology but on the occupation of the Golan. On the other, he suggests that a post-Assad regime might step up Syrian attempts to regain the Golan, possibly going so far as to start a new war with Israel.

Would a new regime really abandon all its anti-Israeli allies just as it went to war with Israel? Would a conservative Islamic (probably Muslim Brotherhood-linked) regime really cut off ties with the conservative Islamic (Muslim Brotherhood-linked) groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their main backer? Chehab’s argument seems to me to be entirely incoherent. Of course there is nothing wrong with presenting a variety of alternative scenarios, but that does not appear to be what Chehab is doing in the piece; rather, he appears to be predicting what the likely consequences of Syrian regime change would be on different fronts, only to come up with mutually contradictory ones.

The rather widespread idea that the fall of Assad would mean the end of Syria’s alliance with Iran and various resistance groups seems wrong-headed to me. As Chehab suggests, Syria’s place in the alliance is not about Baathist ideology but all about the on-going Israeli occupation of the Golan. The fall of Assad is not going to magically solve the Golan problem. It seems to me highly unlikely that any successor regime would be able to simply give up on regaining the territory and hope to stay in power very long; while there obviously isn’t much in the way of opinion poll data to support this, I think the general understanding is that popular Syrian desire to regain the territory remains strong. A successor regime would likely be dominated by Sunnis rather than Alawites and might be less inclined to maintain an alliance with Shiite Iran on sectarian grounds but this is not a serious long-term obstacle to the alliance; Hamas and IJ after all are hardline Sunni groups. As long as Syria remains in serious dispute with Israel over the territory, it has a strong incentive to try to bolster its strategic position by aligning itself with other anti-Israeli forces in the region.

Meanwhile Israel seems to remain very unwilling to return the territory, especially under the current hard-right government, regardless of who is in power in Syria. Even under a more moderate government, the presence of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers in the territory, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority and ability to fund the defence of the territory and the invariable reliance of any Israeli coalition on a number of right-wing parties suggests that the chances of Israel willingly returning the territory any time soon are very slim.

There is perhaps a possible scenario in which an entirely democratic new regime (which is far from being the assured outcome should Assad fall) would have enough democratic legitimacy to be able to take a dent in the national legitimacy stakes and tell the public that there is no hope of regaining the Golan and that Syria should accept it is gone and try to rejoin the international community by abandoning its unpopular allies, but this doesn’t seem a very likely scenario to me. A democratic government is likely to reflect the popular will to insist on the return of the territory while another autocratic one is likely to have to take a particularly hard line on the  issue to provide itself with enough nationalist legitimacy to make up for its weak democratic ones. Perhaps another scenario under which the alliance would break up would be one in which Syria slides into a sectarian war in which Iran and Hizbullah actively militarily support Assad, who eventually loses, alienating the new regime. However unless Israel did something to resolve the Golan issue very quickly under such a scenario, the prospects for Syria slowly sliding back into the alliance would seem high.

Staying with Chehab’s article to examine a slightly different point, he writes:

"The late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas consistently complained about Syria and Iran's interference in Palestinian affairs, which has always frustrated any reconciliation between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
The irony is that the reconciliation process has been reinvigorated by the signing of a treaty between the two rival factions in Cairo last week. Observers have noted this d├ętente was only possible due to the distractions Assad faces at home."

Certainly Abbas is not a fan of Syrian involvement in Palestinian affairs, given that Syria supports Abbas’s domestic political rivals. One might as well point out that Hamas is not a fan of US or Egyptian or Saudi interference in Palestinian affairs. But US pressure on Fatah was at least as responsible, and most likely far more so, for the collapse of previous unity governments and reconciliation efforts than Syrian efforts (let’s remember for example Elliot Abram’s alleged plan to mount a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza), and it seems far more likely that it is the new Egyptian government’s reduced hostility towards Hamas that has helped bring about the latest break through than any developments in Syria.