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Friends or Foes, Syria’s Neighbours Wary of Assad’s Ouster

Analysis by Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Apr 26 2011 (IPS) - As Syria accelerates a violent crackdown on opposition demonstrators, the country’s rising instability and uncertain future are already reverberating beyond its borders in Iran, Israel, Lebanon and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Few if any analysts believe that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will be able to duplicate his father’s decisive crackdown that restored order in 1982 after the government massacred 20,000 people in the northern city of Hama. The current protests are too widely dispersed to be snuffed out in one city – such as the southern city of Deraa where Syrian tanks rolled in on Monday – or among one political group.

More likely, Bashar will continue what biographer David Lesch, a Syria scholar at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, called a “bipolar policy” of alternating minimal concessions with outbursts of lethal force. Opposition groups will continue to challenge the government and the ties that have bound Syrians to the Assad family for four decades will fray and eventually disappear.

Given Syria’s pivotal and historic role in the region as a champion of Arab resistance to Israel, a foe of the United States and an ally of Iran, regime change in Damascus would have major foreign policy implications.

Certain Syrian interests – such as regaining the Golan Heights from Israel and retaining influence over Lebanon – are not likely to change. However, Sunni Muslims, who make up more than 70 percent of the population, are apt to have a greater role in any government that succeeds the Assad’s Alawite-dominated administration. That could facilitate a closer relationship with Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a deepening of ties with Turkey.

Augustus R. Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University, predicts “a gradual cooling” of Syria’s three-decade-old alliance with Shiite Iran, rather than a sudden break. Norton notes that Syria has come to rely on subsidised oil from Iran as well as package tourism by Iranian religious pilgrims visiting a major Shiite shrine in Damascus.

Similarly, Syria would likely be cautious about changing policy toward Hezbollah and Hamas given that these groups have provided Syria with leverage in its strategy to regain the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. That goal, however, looks even more remote as a consequence of the current crisis.

Israel has watched with trepidation as the Arab spring spread to Syria. Many Israeli officials prefer the secular devil they know to a successor regime that might have a more ideological and Islamic character. While Syria has supported Hamas and Hezbollah, the Israeli- Syrian border has remained quiet, enabling Israelis to enjoy their homes and wineries in the Golan.

“Israel is not happy with Bashar and unhappy with his probable, Sunni Islamist successors,” Yossi Alpher, a veteran of the Mossad and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, told IPS. “There are fairly obvious advantages and disadvantages to each.”

For the foreseeable future, Alpher said, the chaos in Syria has removed the “Syria track” as a viable peace option since no Israeli government would make territorial concessions to a regime that could topple any day.

Thomas Dine, who has been in charge of Track II talks between the U.S. and Syria for Search for Common Ground, a U.S. non-profit that tries to resolve conflicts, predicted continuity in Syrian foreign policy toward Lebanon and the Golan Heights but question marks over Israel and Iran. “The Iranians have to be more concerned than the Israelis since the good deal they have had with Syria may not last,” he said.

For Iran, no other Arab ally can fulfil Syria’s role. Syria was the only major Arab country to support Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and has been a conduit for Iran to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Even if Iran restores relations with Egypt, as seems likely, and maintains close ties with now Shiite-led Iraq, it would lose its easy access to Lebanon and Hezbollah should Syria shift allegiance.

Iranian officials, who have trumpeted the fall of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and harshly criticised Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for suppressing protests in Bahrain, have had little to say about the Syrian crackdown.

Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, told a conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. on Monday that Iran is “trying to play a subtle game” in Syria and banking on the fact that the Syrian government and the Syrian people “have the same position on Israel”.

“On the one hand, Iran wants Assad to stay,” Farhi said, “on the other, Iran doesn’t want to antagonise the population.”

Saudi Arabia and the United States also appear ambivalent about the latest unrest.

“The role of Saudi Arabia in Syria is a little bit fuzzy,” Norton said, noting unconfirmed rumours of Saudi and Qatari support to Syrian insurgents – matched by reports of Iranian help to the Assad regime.

The Saudis would like to see Iranian influence curtailed and Assad punished for Syria’s purported role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. “On the other hand,” Norton said, “the Saudis are leading a counterrevolution in the Gulf” and do not want another regime to fall because of popular protests.

The Barack Obama administration has escalated its rhetoric against the Syrian crackdown but has not called for Assad to step down as the U.S. has done with the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. On Monday, the White House said it was considering new sanctions on individual Syrian human rights abusers. The State Department urged U.S. citizens to postpone nonessential travel to Syria and advised those still in the country to depart.

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