The Israeli government may be moving beyond its fear and loathing of a Syria governed by somebody other than Bashar Assad. For years, Jerusalem has been careful to avoid doing anything or even saying anything that might destabilize Damascus. But after Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, threatened Israel this week with a war that would be fought “inside your cities,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman snapped. “Not only will you lose the war,” he said to Assad, “you and your family will no longer be in power.”
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.
Assad’s own foreign policy was — and, to an extent, still is — a big part of Iraq’s problem. He made Syria a transit hub for radical Sunnis from all over the Arab world who volunteered to martyr themselves fighting American soldiers, Shia civilians, and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. That won’t be a problem once Assad is out of the picture.
Freelance jihadists won’t be interested in fighting the next Syrian government anyway if the Alawites are stripped of their power. Sunnis will dominate the government again, as they should because they’re the majority. Sunni Arabs all over the Middle East are still unhappy that Iraq is mostly governed by Shias, but they’ll be at peace with a Sunni-led Syria.
I’d love to see Assad get his just desserts after what he’s done to his neighbors and his countrymen. It will be terrific if his Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is replaced with something more moderate and civilized. The odds of a smooth transition and a happy ending, though, are not great. Syria has no grassroots movement demanding democratic change right now as Iran does. The Israelis are right to be cautious.
But they’re also right to threaten to pull Assad’s plug if he doesn’t back off. He’s a lot less likely even to start the next war if he knows he’ll be held accountable. The fact that he can suppress sectarian violence at home isn’t worth much if he won’t stop exporting it everywhere else.