What will the Middle East look like once the Syrian civil war brings about the fall of President Bashar al-Assad, whose clan has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 40 years? Given the recent dramatic turn of events that has pushed the battle for Syria to a new stage, this question can no longer be avoided.
The successful bomb attack on Assad’s innermost circle, the spread of the fighting into the capital, Damascus (and to the borders with Turkey and Iraq), and the increasing flow of heavier and more precise arms to the insurgents mark the beginning of the endgame. But no one should harbor false hopes about the coming change: Assad’s regime will not be supplanted by a rule-of-law democracy. On the contrary, the post-Assad era is likely to be even more chaotic and violent, as the regime’s opponents attempt to settle accounts with its supporters and conflict erupts among various clans and religious communities.
As in other Arab countries, a secular tyranny will be replaced by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which in Syria, no less than in Egypt and Tunisia, represents the majority of the population. But, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, regime change will be the outcome of civil war. Outside influence, moreover, will probably be minimal.
What is clear is that the Assad regime’s demise will have far-reaching consequences for the regional distribution of power between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and also for regional conflicts, particularly those involving Palestine, Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, and Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, the Assad regime’s downfall will have broader international consequences, owing to the de facto alliance between Russia and Syria.
Radical opposition to Israel has always been a pillar of the Syrian regime, which helps to explain its close cooperation with Hezbollah, Iran’s closest ally in this part of the Middle East, and with Iran itself. But regime change in Syria will not change the basic parameters of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, namely the quest for a viable Palestinian state and, underlying this, the more fundamental question of the acceptance of Israel’s existence.
Despite its radicalism, the Assad regime was always predictable for Israel. It knew what the limits were and accepted them. By contrast, today’s uncertainty entails a danger of regional war, particularly in view of Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical weapons.
One thing is certain: Israel will need to deal more frequently with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular and with (Sunni) political Islam in general, and thus with a significantly strengthened Hamas (the Palestinian Muslim Brothers). The Arab-Israeli conflict will increasingly be charged by religion, which will hardly facilitate compromise. The impact on Jordan, though still unpredictable, will also be of great importance.
At the same time, developments in Syria entail not just risks, but also opportunities for the region that should be explored (though, again, without harboring false hopes). After all, regime change in Syria will come at the expense of Iran and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and could therefore significantly reduce Iranian influence in the conflict with Israel.
More broadly, Iran is losing its only ally in the Arab world other than post-Saddam Iraq, and would therefore be almost completely isolated. In its struggle for regional hegemony against the two leading Sunni powers – Turkey and Saudi Arabia – as well as their protector, the United States, Iran stands to suffer a strategic defeat from which it will be difficult to recover.
This impending defeat and regional isolation will affect Iran’s position on the nuclear question as well. In purely rational terms, the regime would be wise to strive seriously for a negotiated solution. But it seems more likely that Iran’s radical conservative forces will embrace the nuclear program ever more tightly as the country’s strategic position weakens.
Indeed, Iranian leaders’ hope that the Islamic Republic would benefit most from the Arab revolt against pro-Western dictatorships is proving to be a great, if foreseeable, error. Instead, Iran’s rulers must face the near-certainty that the consequences of the Arab awakening will sooner or later catch up with them, too, either directly or indirectly.
Syria holds a final lesson: an alliance with Russia obviously is no longer enough to ensure a regime’s survival. The strategic consequences for the Kremlin may also be profound, because Assad’s fall might doom from the start President Vladimir Putin’s new foreign-policy course, which aims to restore Russian power and global influence.
Thus, the Syrian civil war’s outcome will have far-reaching implications not only for the country and its people, but also for regional and global politics, with Iran most seriously affected. Iran’s leaders have George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their supporters to thank for their alliance with Iraq. In the end, however, that will not be enough.