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Sunday, February 07, 2010

What would come after Assad?

After Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Mualem threatened Israel this week that any future war would take place on the Israeli side of the border, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman snapped back that not only would any war take place on the Syrian side, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would find himself out of power when it ended. That's the first time in a long time anyone has threatened the Assad family with regime change. Michael Totten takes a look at what Syrian regime change might look like.

There are good reasons to feel squeamish about the aftermath of regime change, whether it comes at the hands of Israelis or not. The same sectarian monster that stalks Lebanon and Iraq lives just under the floorboards in Syria. The majority of Syria’s people are Sunni Arabs, but 30 percent or so are Christians, Druze, Alawites, or Kurds. Assad himself is an Alawite, as are most of the elite in the ruling Baath Party, the secret police, and the military. Their very survival depends on keeping Syria’s sectarianism suppressed. The country could easily come apart without Assad’s government enforcing domestic peace at the point of a gun. This is a serious problem. It’s not Israel’s problem, but it’s a problem.

The Israelis have been worried about something else: that after Assad, Syria might be governed by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization or something that looks a lot like it. There’s no guarantee, though, that the Muslim Brothers would take over. They aren’t in power anywhere else in the Arab world. Even if they do succeed Assad, they couldn’t ramp up the hostility much. Assad’s is already the most hostile Arab government in the world. A replacement regime, especially one dominated by Sunnis rather than by minorities who lack legitimacy and feel they have something to prove, would likely gravitate toward the regional mainstream.

Millions of Syrians sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re tired of being lorded over by secularists from a faith they consider heretical. Still, fundamentalist Sunni Arabs who try to impose some kind of theocracy will meet automatic resistance from the country’s Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, and secular and moderate Sunnis. Theocracy is hardly the norm in the Middle East anyway. Not a single Arab country — unless you consider Gaza a country — is governed by a religious regime like the one in Iran.

No dictatorship rules forever. The Alawite regime in Damascus will eventually be replaced, one way or another. Syria will have to reckon with its own demons sooner or later, and it will either hold together and muddle through, or it won’t. Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unstable countries fall apart in their own way. Only a fool would dismiss as irrelevant the sectarian bloodletting Iraq has suffered during the last several years, but Syria’s problems are its own, and a few critical ingredients that made Iraq into a perfect storm are missing.

Totten goes on to agree with his colleague (and sometimes travel companion) at Contentions, Noah Pollak, who wrote on Friday that Lieberman was right to threaten Syria so that Assad knows that if he doesn't back off he's going to get hit. It's curious that much of the Israeli media feels otherwise. My own view is that Totten knows the Arab world as well as any Western writer, and certainly better than most Israelis who have never visited countries like Syria and Lebanon.

Read the whole thing.


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