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2012.06.11

Risky, Rudderless "Post-Assad Syria" Damascus is the Key to Middle East Stability (Study of the World of Monotheism - No. 6)

English translated version of the article on "JB Press," May 9, 2012.

  • Kunihiko Miyake
  • Research Director
    Kunihiko Miyake
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

Parliamentary elections took place in Syria on May 7, 2012, with the Syrian government proudly proclaiming them the first "multiparty elections" held under the new constitution.

To the contrary, the spokesperson of the US Department of State argued that the Syrians' portrayal of the elections "borders on ludicrous." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned President Bashar al-Assad for his continued crackdown on protests, which he claimed has reached an "intolerable stage." The Western mass media prefer to cast Assad as "evil personified," just as they did with Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qadaffi last year and Saddam Hussein some years ago.

Is Assad really the "devil" he appears to be in the news? I would like to discuss in this report Syria's importance in the Middle East region.

Syrian Crisis Continues
There is no doubt that Syria is still in a state of confusion. Let's take a look at what happened this April. On April 1, a group of countries called "Friends of Syria" met in Istanbul. It involved 83 countries including the United States. They reportedly recognized the opposition "Syrian National Council" as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Not surprisingly, Russia and China did not join.

The cease-fire plan that former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, now the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, negotiated with the Syrian government was supposed to take effect by April 10. However, a series of violent clashes has continued to this day.

On April 19, another meeting of the "Friends of Syria" was convened in Paris, in which the participants reportedly discussed that "sanctions against Syria would be stepped up if the government would not honor Annan's cease-fire plan."

The United States and some European countries expressed their concern that the UN Security Council would need to consider a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including the possibility of military intervention, if the situation in Syria remained unchanged. Furthermore, some Israeli politicians who had remained silent on this issue are now increasingly referring in public to the possible collapse of the Assad administration.
It seems that international society is collectively exerting pressure on the Assad administration in order to bring about its downfall.

Except for Iran, Russia and China, almost all major countries--not just the US and Europe, but also Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar, which is following the bidding of Saudi Arabia--have been critical of the Syrian government. The Assad administration could fall at any moment.

Syria's Importance
But is that really the case? I have a different sense of the situation, although I do not intend to support the Assad administration, nor do I owe him anything. I firmly believe that overturning the Assad regime in Syria will not bring peace or stability to the Middle East.

A few decades ago, Syria was under the control of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar. It was one of the main countries that constituted the "Arab opposition front." At that time, the United States believed that Syria symbolized the instability of the Middle East since it did not recognize Israel and persistently refused to negotiate regional issues with the US.

I have a diametrically opposite view of the country. I think that ever since the so-called "Six-Day War" in 1967, in which Israel occupied the Golan Heights, Syria has been the most stable power in this region, the country with the strongest commitment to maintaining the status quo. As it is impossible for Syria to recapture the Golan Heights with its current military power, it has thus far committed itself to preserving the status quo.

I suspect that Israel and Syria might have a tacit agreement that Syria will not enter into any peace talks until Israel concludes a peace treaty with the Palestinians. However, as soon as Syria and Israel do begin talks, Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights and both countries will enter into a peace agreement. If this scenario came to pass, the two countries would have nothing to fight about, with the possible exception of the issue of water from the Sea of Galilee.

I think that it is this "tacit agreement" that indirectly supported the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the subsequent peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan. We should not overlook this point. In other words, if international society strives for the "collapse of the Assad administration," it should prepare for the abolishment of this "tacit agreement."

Regime Change Without a Future Plan
In my eyes, the "Friends of Syria" look like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. In the first place, Syria does not have any "friends" other than Iran and Russia. Since when were the Western countries friends of Syria? Turkey and Qatar are active in Syrian issues these days. What are they really aiming for? Who in Syria calls them a "friend" of Syria?  

My biggest concern is that these countries do not have any common "blueprint" for what will come after the collapse of the Assad administration. There was no "blueprint" for the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq although the Iraq War had been very well planned prior to its beginning in 2003. The reconstruction plan for post-Saddam Iraq that was hastily thrown together after the end of the Iraq War was too unrealistic, nothing but castles in the sand.

The current situation in Syria looks similar to the Iraqi situation. The spokesperson of the US Department of State acknowledged in her daily brief on May 2 that terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda may be involved in the uprising in Syria. If that is true, who should take responsibility to rebuild Syria once the Assad regime is overturned? I am not convinced that it would be a good idea to overthrow the Assad administration immediately.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I feel sympathy for Bashar al-Assad. He was born as the second son of a cold-blooded dictator. Since he was not interested in power and politics at all, he went to London to take postgraduate training as an eye doctor after he graduated from the medical school of Damascus University. He was called back to the country all of a sudden when his elder brother, the successor to his father, unexpectedly died. This may have been the beginning of his misfortunes.

A Blueprint for Post-Assad Syria
Have twelve years as President of Syria changed the personality of a good man? Is his reserved and quiet nature a liability when it comes to keeping the Baath party in power? Or is it simply that his true character, the cold-blooded nature he inherited from his father, is coming to the surface? Regardless, he is no longer fit to serve as President of Syria.

When I was on a business trip to Washington last autumn, I tried to persuade my friends who are experts in Middle Eastern issues that "Bashar shouldn't be squashed without thinking it over first." One of my trustiest friends responded, "You are quite right. But it may be too late because the overthrow of the Bashar regime has already been set."

Is that really the case?

Right now I am thinking the same way: the collapse of the Assad administration is just a matter of time. But before it happens, the countries concerned should prepare a blueprint for post-Assad Syria. Otherwise, the Syrian situation will cause even worse confusion than occurred in Iraq, and will destabilize the entire Middle East. If that happens, it really will be too late.


(The article first appeared in Japanese on "JB Press" on May 9, 2012.)

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