Do rebels have what it takes to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government? Why hasn’t the United Nations or the European Union taken action to stop an ongoing massacre in Syria that has thus far claimed more than 40,000 victims? Why does Iran support Syria? How do the events currently unfolding across the border affect Israel?
Five research fellows from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) provided a synopsis of the competing interests at play in Syria in interviews with Israel Hayom.
“What may look like the regime’s final days could end up lasting many months,” said Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira, a JCPA research fellow. “To this day, Assad has held on, and it’s been 18 months. Ehud Barak, an old intelligence hand, predicted at the outset that Assad’s regime would fall within two weeks, so the inaccuracy of these forecasts just goes to show the difficulty in assessing and prognosticating how things will turn out for these regimes, particularly for those in our part of the world.”
“Nonetheless, it would appear that the process is moving toward Assad’s end,” he said. “We are now seeing the initial signs that the last pillars holding up the regime are beginning to give way.”
A coalition of organizations
The Syrian opposition is comprised of a coalition of four groups who share a few common interests. First, they are all desirous of seeing a Sunni Islamist government arise in Syria. One of the organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra, shares ties with al-Qaida. This week, the U.S. government placed the Syrian group on its list of terrorist organizations. Alongside its terrorist operations against the Assad regime, Jabhat al-Nusra also provides assistance to the local population, a fact that further complicates U.S. and Western attitudes toward the Syrian opposition.
Despite Jabhat’s status, the massacre that Assad is committing against his citizens and the desire to act against Iran has compelled the U.S. and 130 other countries to recognize the Syrian opposition and its relevant components in the coalition as “legitimate.”
“There is still no shadow government in exile,” Shapira said. “There is no organized body that could seamlessly replace Assad tomorrow if the regime collapses now. What we have at the moment is a coalition of organizations that do not see eye-to-eye on the ultimate goals of the uprising. I wouldn’t count on this current crop of leaders to guide Syria into the future. Their joint interest now is to topple Assad. After the regime falls, there will be a war among the rejectionist groups as to which one gains control of the country, and there is likely to be further bloodletting over there.”
The key player: Hezbollah
Acting on the direct orders of Tehran, Hezbollah has thrown its full weight behind the effort to help Assad. Within the Lebanese-based group, however, there are serious disagreements regarding why an organization founded upon hatred of Jews and Israel is now being asked to murder Muslims and die as Iranian mercenaries.
“Hezbollah’s reputation has taken a huge hit because of its support for Assad,” Shapira said. “The extent of the damage is particularly evident in the steep drop in popular support for Nasrallah all across the Arab world. There is also a crisis in morale among Nasrallah’s fighters who every day are seeing the dead bodies of their friends return from across the Syrian border for burial. The application of jihad against Sunnis is not as effective as waging war against the Jews.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Michael Segall, another veteran of Israel’s intelligence apparatus who is also a research fellow at JCPA, explains why the Iranians are so eager to come to Assad’s aid. “From Iran’s standpoint, Syria is perceived as an important element in its rejectionist front against the West in general, and Israel in particular,” he said. “The Iranians refer to Syria as ‘the golden link,’ because for years Syria has played host to terrorist organization and it has allowed the free flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
According to Segall, Iran is opposed to the widely held view that the events in Syria are an outgrowth of the Arab Spring. Instead, Tehran believes the anti-Assad uprising is the latest effort to thwart the resistance movement against the West, which Iran views as “the Great Satan,” and against Israel, or “the little Satan.”
“The Iranians are operating out in the open,” he said. “Just like nobody is trying to conceal the fact that aid for the rebels is coming from Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran is also making no effort to hide its role in helping the Syrian regime.”
“Iran is a state whose goal is to gain strategic depth,” he said. “It views the campaign around Damascus as something much more than just saving Syria itself. This is an important outpost for Iran as it relates to its struggle against the Western world, and that is why it is heavily invested there.”
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, a JCPA research fellow who spent his career at Military Intelligence, believes the sense among the rebel groups “is that Assad’s days are numbered.”
“The decisive battle will be in Damascus,” Halevi said. “They will try to take advantage of the momentum they have amassed in order to make one large push on Damascus. Then, there will be large-scale acts of revenge and massacres in the area outside of Damascus. We are talking about war crimes that will eventually reach the level of genocide.”
Between Iran and Turkey
Dore Gold, the current president of the JCPA, once served as ambassador to the UN and is a top diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that the international community’s failure to take real action against Syria can be attributed to Russia.
“The key to any UN decision is in the Security Council,” Gold said. “Decisions are made in the Security Council whenever there is unanimous agreement or consensus, so that whoever doesn’t support it will reconcile with it and will not prevent it.”
“With Syria, the situation is different. Here, Russia decided to provide full support to Assad. The Russians are fearful of Assad’s downfall and the bolstering of the Sunni position in the regime. The way they see it, their main rival on the Islamic side is the Sunni camp. That is who they’ve been fighting in Chechnya, and that is the situation in Tajikistan and in the Caucuses. In these areas, the actors operating against them are Sunnis who receive funding from states and organizations in the Persian Gulf supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why they are backing the Iranian-Shiite camp.”
According to Gold’s analysis, the opposition forces now control wide swaths of Syrian territory. “The big question is who will gain control of Syria after Assad is gone. Will it be all sorts of politicians who are now based in world capitals? Or will it be military forces active on the ground? In the meantime, it seems that the people on the ground are not taking their orders from any political entity.”
Col. (ret.) Jacques Neriah, another JCPA research fellow Neriah and former diplomatic adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, believes that Iran will not let up in its efforts to impose its influence on what is taking place in Syria. He raised the possibility of an altogether different scenario taking shape: an independent Kurdish entity in the north, which would then invite Turkish intervention that in turn would trigger a more active Iranian involvement.
“Syria can find itself under the rule of militias, just like Libya,” he said. “While the central government is weak, an independent, Kurdish-run entity could come about in the northeast. There the Kurds would enjoy de facto autonomy, and they would link up with their brethren in Iraq. This would create a problem for Turkey. Before, Turkey had to contend with a 400-kilometer ‘Kurdish frontier.’ Now, they will have a 1,200-kilometer border with the Kurds. From the Turkish perspective, this is an untenable situation. In such a scenario, there is a potential for [Turkish] intervention.”
How will this impact Israel?
Neriah said that the ruler who succeeds Assad or the organizations that take over the country “will initially be preoccupied with rebuilding the country and will thus drop the Golan Heights issue from the agenda.”
“To the same extent, however, they may need to find an issue that offers them a goal that they could all unite around, and conflict with Israel certainly fills this need,” Neriah said.
This story first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.