Syria's Bashar Assad Nov. 6. 2011 (Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad greets crowd during visit to Raqqa city in eastern Syria, November 6, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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It was a slightly less routine week than usual in Syria. The protest against the regime continued, and last Friday a record number of people - several hundred thousand - took part in the demonstrations against Bashar Assad and his government. However, the presence of a few dozen Arab observers had the effect of somewhat reducing the level of violence by the security forces. The average number of those killed every day in Syria was halved - from 40-50 to 20-25 - after the observers' arrival.

The arrival of the inspectors, who were sent by the Arab League, was roundly criticized by opposition elements in Syria. They claimed that the presence of the observers would only help Assad survive. Similarly, the appointment of Mustafa Dabi, a Sudanese general who was apparently involved in the genocide in his country, to head the team of observers was deeply resented. Last week, immediately after the team reached Homs, Dabi described the situation in the city as "quite calm." He added that it was premature to arrive at conclusions, but it's difficult to understand a comment like that in the light of the situation in Homs, which was shelled by the Syrian army just a few hours before the observers arrived.

On Wednesday, the Arab League, in an attempt to rebuff the criticism, promised to send another large group of inspectors in the days ahead. In a few cities members of the team rented offices in which, they said, they would take testimony from the local residents about the events. However, residents of Hama complained this week that Syrian security forces were stationed at the entrance to the offices and were keeping a record of everyone who entered.

Western intelligence officials said this week that despite the relative decrease in the level of violence, Assad was continuing to lose ground. Among the thousands of defectors from
Assad's army includes hundreds of officers, including dozens with the rank of major and up, and a few colonels. In the past week the first testimonies were recorded to the effect that the army is using air power to attack areas in which the opposition is heavily concentrated.

Israeli Military Intelligence believes that the die is cast - Assad will fall in 2012 - though it won't commit to a date. It's not clear whether Assad himself understands this. Anyone who saw the interview he gave to Barbara Walters could only conclude that his subordinates are cutting him off from reliable information about events.

The power groups in Syria and in the neighboring countries are already readying themselves for the period after the fall of the Alawite regime. The most credible indication of this came this week when the Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, who after zigzagging furiously between Syria and its adversaries, called on Iran and Russia to back changes in the Damascus regime. The only exception was Tehran. Assad's allies in Iran had begun criticizing the Syrian president's policy two months ago, but more recently they have again begun to refer to him publicly as a leader who will be in power in Syria for many years.

There is no outstanding and recognized opposition body leading the demonstrations, not even the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the most significant figure is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the commander of the Free Syrian Army - the official name of the guerrilla forces operating against the Syrian military. Asaad claims to have 23 battalions under his command. Probably, though, they are no more than companies with outmoded military equipment.

An attempt to draft a document of understandings between the different opposition groups for the post-Assad era seemed to bear fruit last Saturday, when the National Syrian Council and the National Coordinating Committee signed an accord obligating a democratic future for Syria.

The agreement stipulates that after Assad is gone a transition year will be declared in which parliamentary and presidential elections will be held, with freedom of religion guaranteed for every Syrian citizen. However, these two central groups did not co-opt Asaad and his people.

The day after the signing, key figures in both groups and in the other opposition bodies began to dissociate themselves from it.

Extreme scenarios

This week the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, headed by Dr. Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations (during Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister), held a discussion about Syria's future with the participation of experts and researchers from the Center for Middle Eastern Affairs. The most extreme scenario, according to Dr. Shimon Shapira, a retired brigadier-general who was Netanyahu's military secretary during his first term as prime minister, is that Assad will try, just before his downfall, "to go down in the Arab world's pantheon as the leader who dared to launch a war against Israel." In other words, the president will want to subject Israel to a missile attack.

As for possible successors to Assad, the likelihood, according to Shapira, is a coalition consisting of a Sunni elite (which is currently divided between opposition groups based in Damascus and Turkey), with the addition of the former vice president, Abdel Halim Haddam, and the head of the National Syrian Council, Burhan Ghalioun. "My working assumption is that the Alawite sect will lose its strength and status after Bashar falls," Shapira says. "Another possibility involves intercommunal bloodshed which will end with the formation of a Sunni coalition."

Another extreme scenario, about which the group of experts was divided, states that the new regime will sign a peace treaty with Israel. According to Shapira, if the next Syrian regime gets Washington's backing, the administration will try to bring about a peace agreement through the new government. He does not rule out the possibility that the new regime will agree to all the security arrangements Israel wants in return for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, including the withdrawal of Syrian forces to Damascus. In this context, Samir Nashar, one of the leaders of the Syrian National Council, told the Washington Post that the new Syria can be expected to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. Colonel (res.) Jacques Neriah, who was a policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, disputed this scenario. He does not think that the new regime in Syria will volunteer to be the first of the new Arab regimes to make peace with Israel. Nor does Neriah believe in the possibility that Syria will become a canton state). The reason: the country's monolithic population structure (80 percent Sunni). In Neriah's view, the national motif in Syria is very strong, as is the secular motif.

"The civilian infrastructure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which existed in Egypt under Mubarak, does not exist in Syria. The Islamists are part of the uprising but are not its spearhead," he argued. Neriah does not see a war with Israel on the horizon, due to the new Syrian regime's probable weakness. Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel thinks that the assumption that after 6,000 dead the opposition will not agree to let Assad stay is based on Western logic. "There is a possibility that Bashar will be part of a coalition of forces and that the transfer of power will be made in a controlled and cautious manner. In addition, it is possible that the Alawites will want to be rid of him and hook up with the Sunnis, without an intercommunal confrontation."

All the participants in the discussion agreed that if Assad goes the big losers will be Hezbollah and Iran. According to Shapira, Hezbollah has already begun to prepare for this eventuality and they might move a large percentage of its long-range missiles into Lebanon (they had been stored in facilities on the Syrian side of the border in order to avoid Israeli attacks on them). It is likely, he added, that some of the Syria's chemical weapons (one of the largest stockpiles of its kind in the world) will also come into Hezbollah's possession. However, it is not clear what line Hezbollah will take after Assad's removal.

The team of researchers believes that the possibility of a military takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah exists, but so does a heightening of the organization's political involvement. Only recently Hezbollah began to work for a revision of the ethnic-division agreement in Lebanon which has been in force since 1943. Hezbollah wants representation that corresponds with its present political strength (under the agreement a citizen of Shiite descent cannot serve as president or prime minister). Hezbollah can propose this to the present parliament and even get it passed by majority vote, though it would likely trigger Christian resistance, possibly of a violent character.

In Shapira's view, if Hezbollah demands elections under a new system which will be commensurate with its strength and will make it possible for the organization to elect a president, the result could be a civil war and the subsequent cantonization of the country. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Segall, a former intelligence officer whose specialty is the Iranian arena, maintained that Assad's possible fall is worrying Tehran. However, he noted, the Islamic awakening across the Middle East affords the Iranians some compensation, on the assumption that it will be easier for them to crystallize the camp under their leadership in an Islamist region.

In Segall's view, Iran is making considerable efforts to disseminate Shiite Islam in its "backyard": Bahrain, the Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia and above all in Iraq. Iran is allocating resources and efforts to this end, the team of experts explains, recall its encroachment in Lebanon in the 1980s. It cannot be ruled out that Iraq, after the withdrawal of the American forces, will become a new member of the radical axis being led by Iran in the region, in place of Syria. The instability in Syria has implications for Israel. In the immediate range, last May and June saw two violent attempts by demonstrators to cross the border into the Golan Heights. The result: dozens killed by the Israeli army. This phenomenon is likely to persist and be intensified in the form of cross-border terrorist attacks, as in Sinai. Israel is following with concern the state of the Syrian army's stocks of missiles and rockets, along with the chemical and biological material. In addition to stepping up the procurement of steep-trajectory missiles and rockets, Assad also recently acquired advanced antiaircraft and antitank missiles of Russian manufacture. The antiaircraft missiles might limit somewhat the Israeli Air Force's freedom of action in the northern arena. The tension within the Syrian army, combined with its upgraded ability, heightens the risk of an incident with Israeli planes in the north at this time.