Syria’s future: Israel favors fragmentation while Saudis want reliable counter to Iran

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By Brian M Downing

The Syrian rebellion is bringing new security concerns to many countries, especially Israel.

Under the Assads, Syria had been cowed by Israeli military superiority. Syria’s future, its intentions and capabilities, are in doubt. Israel cannot determine the outcome of events there – no state or group of states can – but it can use its influence to reduce the likelihood that post-Assad Syria will pose a threat.

[See also: U.S. intel: Assad’s days are numbered, ‘we just don’t know the number’]

syrbalkOne possible outcome is a unified democratic state governed by a Sunni majority, replacing the Shia-Alawi minority of the Assad regime. A democratic unified Syria might be in Israel’s interests as democracies are thought to be reasonably peaceful. However, a democratic Syria might be prejudged unreliable in commitment to peaceful relations. It might also be deemed unviable.

Syria’s social composition and authoritarian past present formidable challenges to democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood – no friend of Israel – will be a force in post-Assad Syria and its kindred group in Egypt has not inspired outsiders or even its own people with its commitment to popular will and the rule of law.

While a frail democracy will receive some international support, Saudi Arabia will seek to strangle Syrian democracy and, through subsidies and Salafi networks, turn the country into a reliable vassal state.

A weak, divided, perhaps even deeply fragmented Syria will be more attractive to Israel’s national security bureaus. Geography and sociology favor such an outcome, and Israeli policies can aid them.

The boundaries of Syria, after all, were the product of foreign intrigue, not indigenous will or long history.

The Kurdish east may be encouraged to establish itself as an autonomous region nominally still part of Syria, or as an independent state aligned with or integrated into Kurdish Iraq – itself increasingly out of Baghdad’s control.

Israel is well positioned to influence the Kurds. Mossad has enjoyed a long partnership with Kurdish groups, supporting Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein, supporting Iranian Kurds against the ayatollahs.

Regional powers, however, will oppose Kurdish power, as they have for a century or more. Turkey will see Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish autonomy as leading almost inevitably to similar status for its own sizable Kurdish region. Iran has the same concern in its northwestern territory.

The Shia-Alawi region along the Mediterranean Coast could also break away, leading to a partitioned country where Shia and Sunni energies are directed against each other, not Israel, for years to come.

Partitioning will find considerable international support from countries eager for a negotiated settlement to the long bloody war. Russia and Iran, too, will see the coastal enclave as a way of salvaging influence in the region.

There would be strong opposition to a Shia-Alawi region as well. The Sunni principalities, Saudi Arabia foremost among them, want to expel Iranian influence from the region altogether, and reduce the Shia apostates to a subjugated minority. Syrian rebel groups, though exhibiting little unity beside opposition to Assad, will also oppose a Shia-Alawi region. The enclave might become a redoubt, from which the Alawis can play upon Sunni disunity and someday reassert control over the country.

Israel will likely share this opposition to the enclave as it would be a bastion of Iranian influence and an ally of Hizbullah – another Shia power which Saudi Arabia and Israel may turn their attention to once Assad is out.

Israel may seek even greater fragmentation of Syria than the one divided into a Kurdish east, a Shia west, and a Sunni center. The war-wracked country comprises – but no longer binds together – numerous tribal, sectarian, regional, and factional groupings. Added to these fissures are many districts now occupied by, and to some extent governed by, local military commanders. They will seek to maintain their territory and be loth to relinquish power to squabbling politicians who played little role in defeating Assad.

This new Syria, then, will be a patchwork of fiefs and strongholds, of warlords and tribal leaders, at best loosely integrated into a national framework, tied to and manipulated by several outside powers. The political system will be deeply fragmented, antagonistic to the point of intermittent fighting, and incapable of decisive national action – especially in military matters.

Israel’s goal of a fragmented Syria differs greatly from the Saudi goal of a strong Syria which will be its partner in rolling back Shia-Iranian influence from Lebanon to Iraq. In this respect, Syria will one day be a source of conflict between Jerusalem and Riyadh, as each power pursues its national interests beyond the transient one of ousting Assad.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at
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