As we speak, the key rejectionist groups who are united in opposition to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria are meeting in Morocco. This is the fourth summit convened by the Syrian opposition-in-exile, which for the last 18 months has had limited success in achieving the ultimate goal of removing the Alawite regime from power.
Will the next leader of Syria emerge from one of these organizations? Do the rebels on the ground who are currently engaged in battle with the Syrian army take their orders from the political leadership of these groups that are now operating from various points in the West and the Arab world? Why hasn’t the United Nations or the European Union taken action to stop the ongoing massacre that has thus far claimed over 40,000 victims? Why does Iran support Syria? How do the events currently unfolding across the border affect us in Israel?
We have invited five research fellows from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs to provide a synopsis of the competing interests at play as well as an overview of the chaos that has gripped our neighbor to the northeast. The think tank, which is headed by Dr. Dore Gold, is an independent academic institution active for the last 35 years. It specializes in researching the central themes that dominate the Israeli diplomatic, strategic, and judicial agendas.
Next week, the JCPA will host a conference whose guests include Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace envoy who has worked for a number of U.S. administrations. The gathering will focus on discussing the most burning topics that are most affecting the region.
“What may look like the regime’s final days could end up lasting many months,” said Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira, a JCPA research fellow. “To this day, Assad has held on, and it’s been 18 months. Ehud Barak, an old intelligence hand, predicted at the outset that Assad’s regime would fall within two weeks, so the inaccuracy of these forecasts just goes to show the difficulty in assessing and prognosticating how things will turn out for these regimes, particularly for those in our part of the world.”
“Nonetheless, it would appear that the process is moving toward Assad’s end,” he said. “We are now seeing the initial signs that the last pillars holding up the regime are beginning to give way.”
“Still, you have Iran, China, and Russia backing the Assad regime. If Iran is providing the military and moral support, Russia and China are the diplomatic anchors and the last line of defense against a major upheaval. You could also argue that on the domestic front, Assad is not falling apart. There is no collapse of the Syrian chain of command. There is no en masse desertion of brigadier commanders or generals from the Syrian General Staff.”
“The stability of regimes is also measured by the cohesion demonstrated by the security services,” Shapira said. “Most of the personnel in the higher echelons of these agencies are of Alawite origin. The Syrian system is built on an alliance of minorities which also integrates the Druze and the Christians. There is constant tension between the urban elites and those in the rural hinterland, yet even these elements haven’t totally ripped apart.”
A coalition of organizations
The Syrian opposition is comprised of a coalition of four groups who share a few common interests. First, they are all desirous of seeing a Sunni Islamist government arise in Syria. One of the organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra, shares ties with al-Qaida. This week, the U.S. government placed the Syrian group on its list of terrorist organizations. Alongside its terrorist operations against the Assad regime, Jabhat al-Nusra also provides assistance to the local population, a fact which further complicates U.S. and Western attitudes toward the Syrian opposition.
Despite Jabhat’s status, the massacre that Assad is committing against his citizens and the desire to act against Iran has compelled the U.S. and 130 other countries to recognize the Syrian opposition and its relevant components in the coalition as “legitimate.”
In order to understand the forces at work, one needs to grasp the regional and global calculus. The Muslim world is comprised of Sunnis (90 percent of the Islamic world) and Shiites (who make up the remaining 10%). The Syrian opposition is wholly Sunni. Followers of al-Qaida, a Salafist group, are also Sunnis. The Iranian and Syrian regimes are run by Shiites or ethnicities that are related to Shiah Islam (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shiah Islam).
“There is still no shadow government in exile,” Shapira said. “There is no organized body that could seamlessly replace Assad tomorrow if the regime collapses now. What we have at the moment is a coalition of organizations that do not see eye-to-eye on the ultimate goals of the uprising. I wouldn’t count on this current crop of leaders to guide Syria into the future. Their joint interest now is to topple Assad. After the regime falls, there will be a war among the rejectionist groups as to which one gains control of the country, and there is likely to be further bloodletting over there.”
The key player — Hezbollah
Acting on the direct orders of Tehran, Hezbollah has thrown its full weight behind the effort to help Assad. Within the Lebanese-based group, however, there are serious disagreements regarding why an organization founded upon hatred of Jews and Israel is now being asked to murder Muslims and die as Iranian mercenaries.
While the Syrian rejectionist front is convening for a summit in Morocco, Hezbollah, an organization that normally stages large-scale rallies and conferences once every three years, has put off its planned event for months. This is the conference in which the organization updates its ideological manifesto and extends a renewed mandate to its secretary-general.
The man who has ordered the conference to be put on hold is none other than the secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, who is wary that the gathering will offer opponents of the Shiite militia’s current policy of aiding Assad a platform to vent their frustrations.
“Hezbollah’s reputation has taken a huge hit because of its support for Assad,” Shapira said. “The extent of the damage is particularly evident in the steep drop in popular support for Nasrallah all across the Arab world. There is also a crisis in morale among Nasrallah’s fighters who every day are seeing the dead bodies of their friends return from across the Syrian border for burial. The application of jihad against Sunnis is not as effective as waging war against the Jews.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Michael Segall, another veteran of Israel’s intelligence apparatus who is also a research fellow at JCPA, explains why the Iranians are so eager to come to Assad’s aid. “From Iran’s standpoint, Syria is perceived as an important element in its rejectionist front against the West in general, and Israel in particular,” he said. “The Iranians refer to Syria as ‘the golden link,’ because for years Syria has played host to terrorist organization and it has allowed the free flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Now this link is in danger. It is losing its grip, so the Iranians are acting with a sense of urgency. Iranian advisers are being dispatched to assist Assad and his military. Operatives belonging to the Al-Quds Force, a crack, para-military outfit belonging to the Revolutionary Guards which is responsible for carrying out special operations abroad, have been sent to undertake subversive actions against neighboring states while promoting Iranian interests, just as they have done in the Gulf region as well as in North Africa.
The Al-Quds Force is known to be active in Syria. It is providing the regime with advanced technological equipment in hopes of eventually breaking the spirit and the strength of the Syrian opposition.
According to Segall, Iran is opposed to the widely held view that the events in Syria are an outgrowth of the Arab Spring. Instead, Tehran believes the anti-Assad uprising is the latest effort to thwart the resistance movement against the West, which Iran views as “the Great Satan,” and against Israel, or “the little Satan.”
“The Iranians are operating out in the open,” he said. “Just like nobody is trying to conceal the fact that aid for the rebels is coming from Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran is also making no effort to hide its role in helping the Syrian regime.”
“Iran is a state whose goal is to gain strategic depth,” he said. “It views the campaign around Damascus as something much more than just saving Syria itself. This is an important outpost for Iran as it relates to its struggle against the Western world, and that is why it is heavily invested there.”
Segall added that the ayatollahs are pursuing their policies despite domestic criticism from the opposition, which would much prefer to see money poured into the fragile Iranian economy rather than bombs designated for Syria and Hamas. This criticism is likely to grow more ferocious the longer the Syrian civil war continues and the more burdensome Western sanctions against Iran become.
Conversely, the Syrian opposition groups are not bound to anyone, according to Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, a JCPA research fellow who spent his career at Military Intelligence. “[The Syrian opposition factions] owe nothing to the West, and this will have ramifications in the future,” he said. “Today, most of the rebel arms come from Syrian military bases that they conquered, or from deserters from the Syrian army. Many of the rebels went AWOL from the Syrian army, so they are skilled at using arms, including advanced weapons like tanks and anti-aircraft missile batteries.”
Halevi points to the Syrian military’s gradual loss of control on the ground, a predicament starkly reflected by the increasing use of aerial strikes. This tactic is necessitated by the Syrian army’s inability to hold onto territory against the rebels. As such, the military is forced to deploy other threatening means.
“We are not talking about the destruction of just two tanks, but a massive number of planes,” he said. “The rebels say that they have destroyed 100 jets, including planes on the ground. The sense among the rebel groups (including one of them with which Halevi is in contact) is that Assad’s days are numbered. The decisive battle will be in Damascus. They will try to take advantage of the momentum they have amassed in order to make one large push on Damascus. Then, there will be large-scale acts of revenge and massacres in the area outside of Damascus. We are talking about war crimes that will eventually reach the level of genocide.”
“The opposition is joining forces along two fronts,” Halevi said. “They established a headquarters that has divided Syria into 15 combat zones. The organization that has gained control of the funds flowing in from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn is transferring the money to their operatives inside Syria. The money is not coming directly from Saudi Arabia, but rather through the Turkish border.”
Between Iran and Turkey
Dore Gold, the current president of the JCPA, once served as ambassador to the U.N. and is a top diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that the international community’s failure to take real action against Syria can be attributed to Russia.
“The key to any U.N. decision is in the Security Council,” Gold said. “Decisions are made in the Security Council whenever there is unanimous agreement or consensus, so that whoever doesn’t support it will reconcile with it and will not prevent it.”
“With Syria, the situation is different. Here, Russia decided to provide full support to Assad. The Russians are fearful of Assad’s downfall and the bolstering of the Sunni position in the regime. The way they see it, their main rival on the Islamic side is the Sunni camp. That is who they’ve been fighting in Chechnya, and that is the situation in Tajikistan and in the Caucuses. In these areas, the actors operating against them are Sunnis who receive funding from states and organizations in the Persian Gulf supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why they are backing the Iranian-Shiite camp.”
According to Gold’s analysis, the opposition forces now control wide swaths of Syrian territory. “The big question is who will gain control of Syria after Assad is gone. Will it be all sorts of politicians who are now based in world capitals? Or will it be military forces active on the ground? In the meantime, it seems that the people on the ground are not taking their orders from any political entity.”
The former ambassador shines a spotlight on Iraq, which in the post-Saddam Hussein era is being run by a Shiite regime that is for all intents and purposes beholden to Iran. If Assad falls, the Iranians will lose their foothold in Syria. Nonetheless, we can expect that just across the border separating the Golan Heights from Syria, an extremist Sunni regime will arise.
Col. (ret.) Jacques Neriah is also a research fellow at JCPA. Neriah, who once served as a diplomatic adviser to the late Yitzhak Rabin, believes that Iran will not let up in its efforts to impose its influence on what is taking place in Syria. He raised the possibility of an altogether different scenario taking shape: an independent Kurdish entity in the north, which would then invite Turkish intervention that in turn would trigger a more active Iranian involvement.
“Syria can find itself under the rule of militias, just like Libya,” he said. “While the central government is weak, an independent, Kurdish-run entity could come about in the northeast. There the Kurds would enjoy de facto autonomy, and they would link up with their brethren in Iraq. This would create a problem for Turkey. Before, Turkey had to contend with a 400-kilometer ‘Kurdish frontier.’ Now, they will have a 1,200-kilometer border with the Kurds. From the Turkish perspective, this is an untenable situation. In such a scenario, there is a potential for [Turkish] intervention.”
“Either way, we have not reached the end of the Syrian quagmire,” he said. “After the fall of Assad, we are in for a long period of constant instability. This will be felt in Lebanon and perhaps in Jordan as well, the two countries that share a border with Syria. If Turkey intervenes, Iran will also intervene. There are a number of variables at work here.”
How will all of this impact Israel?
“Perhaps the ruler that succeeds Assad, or the organizations that take over the country, will initially be preoccupied with rebuilding the country and will thus drop the Golan Heights issue from the agenda. To the same extent, however, they may need to find an issue that offers them a goal that they could all unite around, and conflict with Israel certainly fills this need,” Neriah said.