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Is there life after Bashar Assad?

The Middle East begins to prepare for the fall of the Syrian leader


by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

December 12, 2012 | 9:29 am

Syrian President Bashar Assad on March 30, 2011. Photo by Syrian state TV via Reuters TV

Syrian President Bashar Assad on March 30, 2011. Photo by Syrian state TV via Reuters TV

“It might take two weeks or it might take a year, but either way President Bashar Assad is on his way out,” Moshe Maoz, Israel’s pre-eminent expert on Syria told The Media Line. “It’s certainly closer than it was a few months ago.”

His comments came as Qatar, the small oil-rich Gulf state, called for international support of the Syrian rebels at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco.

“This meeting has exceptional significance. It is taking place at a time when the Syrian people are about to complete their victory and achieve their legitimate aspirations,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said. “The opposition forces are expanding their control and the authority of the regime is eroding,”

The rebel fighters have been buoyed by growing international recognition -- including from the United States. At the same meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al- Feisal said his country was donating $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Assad’s opponents.

After 20 months of a civil war that has left more than 42,000 people dead; and with at least half a million Syrians having fled the country, the world is beginning to envision a Syria without Assad. For some countries, especially Israel, that is a mixed blessing.

“Many Israelis, especially in the intelligence, believe that Bashar Assad is pragmatic and corrupt, but we can work with him,” Maoz said. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if Assad is overthrown, his large stocks of chemical weapons could end up in the hands of Hizbullah, Iran’s Shiite proxy based in Lebanon. Israel and Hizbullah fought a war in 2006 that ended in a draw. Since then, Hizbullah has rearmed and threatens new attacks on Israel.

Assad has also kept the Israeli-Syrian border quiet since 1973, despite the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries.

One scenario for Syria is that the country could divide into areas controlled by Syria’s different ethnic groups.

“You could have the Alawites around the area of Latakiya; the Kurds, who are more or less autonomous anyway; the Druze and the Sunnis, each taking one area,” Maoz says. “But most of the Sunnis -- who represent more than 60 percent of the country -- want Syria to stay united.”

It is also not clear whether the rebel groups are prepared to govern Syria. The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella for opposition groups that was formed last month in Qatar, hopes to be able to form a government. The former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, Moaz al-Khatib, was elected president of the coalition. But not all rebel groups are part of the Coalition and analysts fear internal power struggles.

There are also fears that some of the rebel groups are affiliated with Al-Qa’ida. The Obama Administration recently designated the Islamist Jabhat Al-Nusra a terrorist organization, a decision the leader of the National Coalition has asked Washington to re-think.

Middle East analysts also say that events in other countries in the region offer a cautionary warning to those looking at post-Assad Syria.

“When (Iraqi dictator) Saddam Hussein fell (in 2003), Iraq fell apart,” Nadim Shehadi, an expert on Syria at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “Some are concerned that the fall of Assad could mean the same thing for Syria.”

But Shehadi says the Arab world is a very different place today than it was then.

“The whole region then was against the American invasion of Iraq and nobody wanted Iraq to succeed,” he said. “All of those countries contributed to the mess in Iraq.”

Syria, he says, could be a different situation. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are cautiously seen as moving toward democracy. The Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, want stability in the region. And Israel, preoccupied by Iran’s continued attempts to develop a nuclear bomb, wants a stable regime in Syria.

“The lesson from Iraq doesn’t apply,” Shehadi says. “The longer you keep Assad in power, the more of a mess it will be after he falls.”

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