The chances of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall and an opposition takeover are growing, despite the rebels’ own divisions. Unrest now embraces some 30 urban centres; if Damascus and Aleppo rise up, the results will be catastrophic for the regime. The Baath Party’s demise, to be welcomed in the struggle for human rights and pluralism, is also fraught with challenges. A United Nations Security Council resolution would be a key symbolic gain for progressives, but alone will have little, if any, effect on the ground in the Middle East.
The popular Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, combined with the consequences of the ill-fated U.S. intervention in Iraq, have already shifted the strategic balance of power in the region between nations and communities, unlike anything seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Nor can Shia-dominated Iran be ignored in its competition with the region’s Sunni Arab majority, a rivalry centuries long.
Mr. al-Assad’s demise will end Syria’s secular tradition, of value in itself no matter how corrupt and repressive the regime has been, as many Syrian Christians will testify. It will bring about Sunni domination over substantial minority communities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds and others. The revolt is not led by Islamists, nor was it in Egypt or elsewhere. But it’s more than likely that Syria’s Sunni domination will yield to Muslim Brotherhood rule, with that movement’s organizational strength and ideological agenda.
Unhappily, the widely shared Western conceptions that change in the name of pluralism would invariably succeed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring looks to be proved naive. A much murkier reality has emerged. While frustration with an abusive and ossified status quo has led to revolution, the consequences clash dramatically with the vision of the progressive movements that unseated the secular autocrats.
Emerging Islamist governments could prove to be relatively benign. But early indicators are less than reassuring. Israel, not unexpectedly, is already the subject of further demonization for its policies respecting Palestinians and, at a deeper level, for its very existence as a Jewish state. Mosque sermons are increasingly fiery, and Muslim Brotherhood leaders are caustic. This does not mean military confrontation or an abrogation of peace treaties. But it does mean a still more hostile Arab street, a re-energized Hamas and a weakened Palestinian Authority, unable to take further risks for peace lest it be labelled Zionist sellouts to an Israeli government where accommodation with Palestinians often seems anathema.
Israel is ambivalent about the current rulers in Damascus. The Baath Party has been hostile in rhetoric and has fostered low-level confrontation with the Jewish state, but has generally been predictable and risk-averse. For Israel, the prospect of Sunni rule in Syria causes intense worry about chaos in an already fragile Arab society, and fear about forced confrontation with an Islamist government in Damascus. This raises the question of whether the Lebanese-based Shia group Hezbollah, which is dependant on Mr. al-Assad, will retreat in the face of a Sunni-ruled Damascus or pursue still more active confrontation with Israel in a bid to reinforce its revolutionary credentials.
Iran would be a major loser should the al-Assad regime fall. It’s heavily reliant on a sympathetic Syrian government in its own pursuit of a Shia-dominated crescent through Iraq to Lebanon. Should Hezbollah turn inward toward conventional politics in Beirut, Tehran would lose much of its regional influence. If Syria fragments, its various communities will be driven toward civil war. Lebanon, dramatically fragmented itself, will be drawn in.
Majority Sunni treatment of the minority Shiites has historically been less than generous throughout the region, exemplified by Shia subjugation in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in Saudi Arabia, where restrictions on Shia places of worship, education and identity are severe. Among the most vocal indicators of animosity between these competing faiths was Saudi King Abdullah’s remark to senior Americans in 2008, urging them to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran. Shiites differ from Sunnis in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization to a depth difficult for most Canadians to imagine. Both share a primordial distrust of the other.
The current situation in the Middle East is incredibly complex. Today’s reality contains so many variables that it’s impossible to predict an ultimate outcome. What can be said categorically is that tumult and chaos will be the region’s leitmotif for the foreseeable future. No player in the international community will fail to feel the consequences.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.