Syria: Assad's fall would create shockwaves from Tehran to
Unrest in Syria has greater potential consequences than any other
event in the Arab Spring so far
* Zaki Chehab
* The Observer, Sunday 1 May 2011
Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad wave the flag in Damascus.
Photograph: Khaled Al-Hariri/Reuters
As decades-old dictatorial regimes crumbled around him in January,
Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, denied that revolution would
spread to his country. Balhermep, the Ba'athist concept of "the
ruling of the people", would keep his country together.
But as demonstrations in towns and villages across Syria seemed
only to be spreading last week, even as the regime intensified its
crackdown, that notion appeared to be unravelling.
The international consequences of regime change in Syria are many
and complex. The fallout will be particularly marked in Lebanon
and Palestine, and there will also be impacts on the country's
alliances with Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, and, perhaps most
importantly, on its relationship with Israel.
Damascus's influence has always been strong in these areas. Syria
is vital to Hezbollah, which leads a Lebanese coalition supporting
Assad. Lebanon has no land borders except with Syria on the east
and north, and with Israel to the south. To the west is the
Mediterranean, swimming with battleships and an international
force to prevent the smuggling of weapons. Hezbollah's links with
Syria are, in turn, the linchpin of the alliance between Tehran
and Damascus, for the party's first loyalty is to Iran and the
supreme leader of its Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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.
This could boost the enthusiasm of Iranian reformers, who have
been sidelined and repressed since the disputed presidential
elections in Iran in 2009.
Damascus also hosts at least 10 Palestinian factions, most
prominently Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Analysts say that Assad's
tacit support 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.
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 détente was
only possible due to the distractions Assad faces at home.
Now that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is leading the opposition
movement at home, Hamas is reported to be looking for a new HQ
Further east, Iraqi governments have long accused the Assad regime
of facilitating fundamentalist attacks inside Iraq and say that
Damascus harbours many of the dissolved Iraqi Ba'ath party's
former leadership – men Baghdad would like turned over for trial.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first to
publicly scold Assad on more than one occasion for not taking his
advice to reform. Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Syria
for consultations and sent its head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan,
There is no doubt that this reflects the Turkish concern that
events in its close neighbour Syria may turn into a sectarian or
religious war which would have a direct impact on Turkey. That
fear was expressed by the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu
on Friday when he warned of the possibility of a mass exodus of
Syrians fleeing a potential bloodbath.
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.
With their allies in Egypt overthrown, Israel may not welcome yet
more regime change so close by.
Upheaval in Syria will not only affect its immediate neighbours –
it will reshape the balance of power in the Middle East more than
any event in the Arab Spring thus far.
Zaki Chehab is founder and editor-in-chief of ArabsToday.net, and
author of Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic