To demonstrate that point, the administration went out of its way to assure Assad that — unlike Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi – he will not face military reprisals from the United States for any actions he takes to quell the Syrian rebellion. This assurance was delivered in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent pronouncement that American intervention into the unrest “was not going to happen.”
While Clinton did say she found the Syrian crackdown on the protests to be “deeply concerning,” Assad’s role as “reformer” had given him immunity from any US intervention, which probably came as somewhat of a shock to the thousands of Syrians currently protesting, fighting and dying in Syrian streets.
Finally, Israel, for its part, has primarily viewed Assad as “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” This belief comes despite the fact that since his ascension to power in 2000, Assad has deepened ties with Iran and Hezbollah; undermined the pro-Western Lebanese government of Saad Hariri; and actively pursued a nuclear program.
Therefore, many Israelis fear that a collapse of Assad’s regime might imperil decades of relative peace along its shared border. As Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser said: “It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?”
Still, while Assad has quite the favorable backing to potentially ride out the current crisis, events and circumstances could still spiral out of his control, forcing him into some unpleasant options.
For example, Assad’s brother Maher Assad, commander of Syria’s 4th division, is tied down suppressing riots in Deraa. As the only military unit manned by Allawites — the other units by Sunnis — Assad may find himself short of trusted soldiers in which to defend his regime. If he determines his army to be unreliable, he may choose to concentrate on saving Damascus and, like Bahrain, call for outside help, most likely from Iran, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Palestinian groups with bases Syria.
However, Assad, if truly desperate enough, could do what no threatened Arab leader has done to date: provoke a war with Israel in order to divert popular outrage from being directed at his regime. In a way, a move like that is fairly plausible in that Assad’s anti-Israeli, anti-American bona fides have never been questioned by the Syrian people.
Such a possibility certainly hasn’t been lost on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials who have recently begun to prepare for such a scenario, one in which Assad launches an attack either directly or indirectly through his terrorist proxies.
Still, while many might conclude such an outcome to border on the highly implausible, it would be wise to remember that the Mideast rebellions of 2011 have borne one consistent lesson: the only certainty is uncertainty. It’s a lesson Bashar Assad’s contrasting supporters may soon be taught.
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