June 2013 Commentary

What if Assad Wins?

by J. L. Granatstein

What if Assad wins out in Syria? For months the rebellion against the Syrian President had made enormous headway, taking towns and villages, moving into Damascus, and creating the impression of an inevitable triumph. But now Bashar al-Assad's army, supported by substantial Hezbollah forces imported from Lebanon, aided by Iranian advisors and arms, and assisted further by Russian weapons, has taken the strategic town of Qusair, is advancing on Aleppo and Homs, and seems close to taking back districts of Damascus that had fallen to the rebels. What's next?

The simplest answer is that we do not know what will result. If Assad's forces win a complete or even partial victory and re-take much of the country, there will certainly be terrible vengeance against any rebels or opposition supporters who fall into loyalist hands. There will surely be a new flood of refugees fleeing over the borders into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan--and besieging Western embassies for permission to immigrate--and this is certain to exacerbate an already critical situation in those countries as they struggle to house and feed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.

If Assad wins, the Iranians will exult in what they will see as a triumph for Shia Islam. Assad is an Alawite, not a Shia, but the rebellious opposition draws much of its support from Sunnis. The rebel forces seem just as willing to kill their Islamic foes as Assad's troops have been to kill Sunni jihadists and their supporters. Just this week, the pro-Assad Syrian media published claims that Sunni rebels had massacred sixty Shia in a small town. This claim is likely true--and there will certainly be more of these vengeful atrocities, especially if the Assad forces make more gains.

And if Iran rejoices, so too will Hezbollah. Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah intervened in Syria to support its paymasters in Baghdad and Damascus. It too wants to hit out at the Sunnis, hoping to see Shiite control over as much of the region as possible. That will increase the forces against Israel, Hezbollah's ultimate enemy.

For the Israelis, Syria poses a dilemma. The Israelis had a de facto peace with Assad in Damascus and a calm border. If the rebellion emerges triumphant, its Islamist and al-Qaeda jihadist elements will surely look to strike at Israel at the earliest opportunity, at the very least with raids and threats. If Assad wins, which Jerusalem must see as marginally preferable to the alternative, at a minimum it will take years for Syria to be rebuilt and for its military to recover from the casualties and strain of fighting a long campaign. Israel's front on the Golan Heights will probably be secure for some time to come in that event.

Then there are the Russians. President Putin has played a careful game, selling advanced weapons to Assad, but criticizing him for not making the modest reforms that might have stopped the rebellion. At the same time, Moscow is--sort of--pushing for a peace conference that would aim at a settlement. This won't fly if Assad's forces really do have the upper hand.

Certainly, there is no good news for the West in an Assad victory. The United States and its allies stood by while the killing went on, denying modern arms to the opposition forces until June 13, perhaps too late to save the Sunnis with their strong jihadist and al-Qaeda links who frightened those capitals that had little interest in seeing Assad survive. If the rebels win, they might feel some gratitude. If the dictator emerges triumphant, he will owe nothing to the West and everything to Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.

The only certainty is that, whatever the outcome, regional instability is certain to increase. Hezbollah's power in Lebanon will grow. The instability in Jordan will mount as the King's government faces the costs of feeding still more refugees while hoping to forestall a Jordanian "spring". And Turkey, its government under Prime Minister Erdogan looking more Islamist everyday, is now facing increased unrest from those millions of Turks who thought they lived in a secular nation that was part of Europe.

Assad's monstrous regime has brought ruination on Syria, and now it threatens to further destabilize its neighbours as well. President Putin was right--Assad ought to have made concessions enough to forestall revolution. But it's too late now, and he, his people, and his supporters and opponents will all face the consequences.

J.L. Granatstein is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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