- The uprising in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad appears to be moving gradually towards armed civil conflict.
- International intervention has been limited until now by Russia and China, and NATO has so far ruled out any military action. However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will certainly fear the situation becoming more like that in Libya, with the West helping the opposition.
- Assad’s fear of this scenario may prompt him to threaten Israel and Western interests with wider regional escalation, as indicated by his reported comments to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
- Israel currently considers the likelihood of being drawn into a conflict as low, because of the effective deterrence it has against Syria and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Still, it will be watching carefully, should Assad attempt to widen the conflict if his regime appears to be facing an existential threat.
Recent reports have quoted senior Syrian officials threatening any country that intervenes on the side of the Syrian opposition movement. There have also been reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad threatening to attack Israel should Syria come under attack from external powers. These developments come as the nature of the conflict inside Syria is evolving in the direction of an armed civil conflict. As the brutal suppression of protests has continued in Syria, international concern – and the desire for effective international intervention to stop the killing, and perhaps assist in the transfer of power from the Assad dictatorship – has grown. How is the conflict in Syria changing, what are the implications for international intervention, how credible are Syria’s threats and how will Israel be viewing the events?
How is the conflict in Syria changing?
The uprising in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has now entered its seventh month. Around 2,900 people are believed to have been killed by the regime in its attempts to crush the protests. Yet despite the efforts of the regime, demonstrations and protests are continuing.
In recent weeks, events have taken an ominous turn. There have been increasing reports of the use of firearms by oppositionists, and the killings of members of the security forces and supporters of the regime. There has also been increasing reports of defections from the army, with defectors turning their arms against state security forces.
The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, is moving ahead with efforts to create a unified leadership for the uprising. A second attempt at forming a comprehensive opposition council to lead the uprising came in early October, with the announcement in Istanbul of the formation of the Syrian National Council. This umbrella body brings together representatives from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration and the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). The Damascus Declaration is the main liberal, secular opposition gathering to have emerged in Syria in recent years. The LCCs, meanwhile, are one of the groups engaged in organising the protests on the ground. The Syrian National Council also includes local independent and tribal figures and a number of Kurdish parties.
There are also persistent reports of the emergence of an organised military element to the opposition. The Free Syrian Army’s existence across the border in Turkey was first reported several months ago. This is an armed organisation consisting of deserters from the Syrian army. It possesses small arms and a number of armoured vehicles. It is led by Riad Asaad, formerly of the Syrian Air Force.
At present, the regime remains determined to stay in power, and yet is unable to crush the uprising. Therefore, the current stalemate is likely to continue.
Is international intervention likely?
The deterioration towards civil war raises the possibility of a Libyan-type situation emerging in Syria. This in turn may lead to increased foreign involvement.
Whilst Britain has played a prominent role in calling for intensified international action to force reform or the departure of the regime in Syria, considerable obstacles to such action remain. In early October, an attempt to gain UN Security Council support in principle for sanctions against Syria failed. Both Russia and China voted against the EU-sponsored motion.
Moscow and Beijing have their own reasons for opposing sanctions. China has major oil concessions in Syria, which it does not want to jeopardise. In the case of Russia, the ties with the Assad regime go deeper. Not only is Syria a major recipient of Russian weapons, but Russia is also in the process of re-establishing a strategically important naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which will offer Russia access to the eastern Mediterranean.
The US was angered by the Russian and Chinese decision, but there is little Washington can do to alter the clear stances of these two permanent UNSC members. As a result, concerted action via the UN is unlikely. Increased sanctions by the EU and US and assistance to the Syrian opposition, therefore, are likely to constitute the main types of continued assistance.
Washington and European governments maintain close dialogue with Syrian opposition leaders. The latest US move – to block the sale of telecommunications equipment to Syria – is an example of the level of Western activity likely to take place in the immediate future.
Turkey is also playing a key role in events in Syria. Both the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army are based on Turkish soil. Moreover, Turkey has hosted four conferences since the start of the uprising, in which Syrian oppositionists have sought to achieve unity. Should Assad fall, the Turks are thus currently positioned to emerge as a major beneficiary.
How credible are Syria’s threats?
Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, Syria has allies on the regional stage. Damascus is allied with Iran, which has reportedly been offering Assad aid and advice to quell the uprising. Syria is also allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it sponsors and domiciles a variety of terror groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP), among others. In addition, Damascus has offered aid to Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
The Syrians have also made overt threats to make use of these assets. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has threatened ‘tough measures’ against any state that recognises the Syrian National Council. All of this means that, unlike with Libya, Syria might well have the ability to activate its many clients to hit Western interests across the region (for example, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories) in the event of international intervention against it.
In unconfirmed remarks reported by the Iranian FARS news agency, the Syrian president said on 4 October that if NATO attacks take place against Syria, he and his allies would target Israel, as well as American and European interests in the Persian Gulf and throughout the region. Yet Syria’s position is complex. Hezbollah is a client of Iran, in which Tehran has invested heavily over the last decade. It is questionable whether Tehran would be willing to risk having this asset damaged by provoking conflict with Israel to save the Assad regime.
Hamas, too, has been distancing itself from Assad. With the movement’s leadership resident in Syria, the organisation is in the uncomfortable position of being a client of the regime, at the same time that Assad is suppressing an uprising supported by Hamas’s fellow Muslim Brothers. The solution Hamas has sought is to distance itself from Damascus. It has reportedly refused to hold rallies in support of Assad in Gaza. Hamas’s position makes it at least doubtful that it would agree to undertake military action on behalf of the regime.
How would an armed uprising in Syria affect Israel?
Israel is not a player in the Syrian uprising. It has no relationship with the Syrian opposition, and it seeks no involvement. Yet Israel will be concerned, if not surprised, by the threats against it apparently issued by Assad in recent days. According to Syrian opposition sources, pro-regime figures have expressed similar sentiments in private conversations in recent months. The Syrian regime has based its claims to legitimacy on its ideological commitment to Arab nationalism and fierce opposition to Israel.
Israeli officials have said on numerous occasions in recent months that their assessment is that the Assad regime is gradually loosing ground, as there is no way that Assad can regain the legitimacy he has lost. At the same time, it is clear that the regime does not intend to go quietly.
The threats of open Syrian military action against Israel are considered by Israeli officials to be of fairly low probability. Assad, fighting for survival, is unlikely to be in a position to think about turning his army southwards. However, it is hard for Israel to rule out the possibility that Assad may take desperate measures if he feels his regime is on the verge of collapse. Through proxies and the use of Palestinian refugees, Damascus might seek to refocus attention on Israel, as took place during the ‘Nakba Day’ demonstrations on the Golan Heights and the Lebanese border this year.
A separate concern is the fact that Syria possesses an extensive stockpile of chemical and biological weaponry. It also has the missiles to deliver these. Israel would also be concerned if this weaponry fell into the hands of forces hostile to it should the regime fall.
The fall of the Assad regime would undoubtedly represent a major blow to the pro-Iranian regional alliance which Israel has identified in recent years as its main regional adversary. But the strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian National Council, and the increasingly sectarian Sunni nature of the uprising, mean that a post-Assad Syria would be unlikely to be amenable to peaceful coexistence with Israel. Indeed, it is quite possible that such a post-Assad regime would maintain the general anti-western orientation that has characterised Ba’athist rule in Syria.
At the present time, the indicators are not for the early departure of the Assad regime, but rather for the intensification of the uprising. Israel will be watching the situation in Syria with concern, determined to maintain its deterrent power whatever the outcome.