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Just How Bad Could a Syrian Collapse Get?

During the weekend, Bashar al-Assad’s forces rolled into the city of Hama–where his father once had up to 40,000 civilians murdered–and killed at least 140 residents. Twitter is overflowing with reports the assault continues today, and tanks are storming other towns. Protesters have flooded the streets across Syria in response, leading German intelligence to declare that actually, no, Assad’s regime is still probably going to survive.

But the continued stability of the Syrian regime is only one highly unpleasant option. The other side of that coin is Assad will conclude his power is finally slipping. Unable to ratchet up internal repression, he might try to provoke a war with Israel.

We already know–thanks to Michael Weiss’ investigative work–Assad orchestrated the Nakba Day raids on the Golan Heights. The anti-Israel journalists and activists who tried to characterize the riots as a spontaneous show of Palestinian nationalism, and who declared them to be the beginning of a non-violent Third Intifada, have yet to apologize for what amounted to pro-Assad propagandizing. But nonetheless, facts remain facts, and Weiss’ work shows Assad is not beyond using civilians to heat up the border. Committing Syrian military assets is a different matter–Assad knows the IDF would destroy his military, and he actually cares about that–but if he thinks he’s facing a “use ‘em or lose ‘em” situation then obviously his decision calculus would change.

A war between Israel and Syria would be devastating. Fought in a context where Assad was making a self-perceived last-ditch effort at regime survival, it would likely escalate beyond conventional weapons and would certainly escalate beyond Israel and Syria’s borders.

There is a chance Assad would try to activate Hezbollah, but that Hezbollah would hang him out to dry. Israel has all but promised the next Israeli-Hezbollah conflict will be dealt with as a state-to-state war, and the Party of God might not want to gamble on the political aftermath of dragging Lebanon into another destructive confrontation with the IDF. That would be weighed against the damage their jihadist image would suffer if they stood silently by while Israel dismantled their patron, but maybe–maybe–they would confine themselves to a few token rockets, to which the IAF would respond with a few token air raids.

But if the IDF is literally rolling into Damascus, then it’s not just an Israeli-Syrian matter any more, but a matter of Iran losing a proxy. That’s a situation that might be intolerable for the Iranians, both as a geopolitical matter and as a matter of domestic “we’ve put the Zionists on the brink of destruction” ideology. Because Tehran has always been willing to battle Israel to the last Lebanese, it might order Hezbollah to unleash its 60,000 rockets, its long-range missiles, and even the air assets rumored to be in the militia’s possession. That’s an order that would be obeyed.

From Israel’s south, Hamas would be activated, and it’s not impossible to envision Iranian proxies managing to fire off rockets from the increasingly anarchic Sinai Peninsula. Israel would be faced with a multi-front war, a situation which would call for the IDF to quickly eliminate threats in one theater and then swing around to the next. The IDF’s usual diplomacy-friendly, limited approach would be superseded by the necessity of stopping the rockets raining down on Israeli cities, and confronting state-backed Arab armies for the first time in decades.

That’s not the worst case scenario, though. The worst case scenario is one where, as the IDF made quick work of Syria’s conventional forces and began to counter-attack, Damascus responded by unleashing its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. The orthodox deterrence argument has always been that Assad would never use those missiles because the Israelis would end his regime in response, but that thinking wouldn’t apply if Assad already thought he was on the brink of losing his regime.

The Israelis, who are living in the shadow of Iranian nuclearization, would have to retaliate disproportionately to any non-conventional attack. Their response would be limited only by the nature of the Israeli arsenal and the diplomatic constraints faced by the Israeli government, and Jerusalem is unlikely to be receptive to Western calls for moderation. Years of lectures about how Assad is actually a “reformer” have not bought the West credibility on Syrian issues, and–besides–the domestic and military justifications for retaliation would be overwhelming.

And now we’re in a situation where the Jewish State is facing a multi-front conflict involving multiple Iranian proxies plus the specter of chemical and biological attack, with the diplomatic community and the international media undoubtedly blaming Jerusalem for overreacting–a desperate and surreal situation that will not cause Israeli politicians to overreact less.

Things never should have gotten this far. Syrian instability was always inevitable – no matter how dearly peace process obsessives pretended otherwise–but the region should never have been allowed to get this dangerous. The international community did not have to stop Lebanon II before the IDF dismantled Hezbollah, and it certainly did not have to look the other way while Hezbollah rebuilt its arsenal during the last half-decade. It wasn’t inevitable to have Iranian proxies entrenched from Gaza to Beirut, had the international community not consistently–and sometimes hysterically–blocked Israel’s military campaigns to uproot them. Concentrated international pressure might have been able to bring Syria to heel, as an alternative to the downward spiral the country now faces.

All of which is to say, looking the other way while lunatics arm themselves, make alliances and organize together for war is generally not a good way to ensure long-term stability. The potential consequences of Syria’s free fall are terrifying examples of just how counter-productive that strategy may turn out to be.


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