Monday 16 April 2012

Sometimes, It's Better the Devil You Know .....

The civil war in Syria is already a year old.  The "Arab Spring" started in 2011, and we are already in the Spring of 2012.  If we believe those in the know, the Syrian civil war could last for another 6 to 12 months before any sort of final solution is reached.  For Israel, it is critical to try to predict what the final solution could look like, in order to make relevant security arrangements for the new reality that she will inevitably have to face.

The security situation with Syria has experienced its ups and downs over the past 64 years.  Israel has been at war with Syria 3 times since 1948, and has also been involved in numerous border incidents and skirmishes over the years.  Despite the fact that Israel has not had an official war with Syria since 1973, Syria has continued to represent a significant threat to Israel.  This threat has come, not only from the border that Israel shares with Syria, but also from the huge financial, military and political support that Syria has provided to terrorist organisations which are working to destroy the State of Israel by any means.  Despite these constant threats, it would be fair to say that the border with Syria has been relatively stable and quiet since the guns went silent after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  The fact that Israel has never been on the losing side of a war with Syria may have something to do with this, and Israel has certainly benefited from this relative calm.  A new reality in Syria could potentially be much worse than this.

It is believed that the minority Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad (and similarly that of his father Hafez al-Assad before him) has given a great deal of thought to the possibility that the majority may rise up against its minority tribe.  The Sunni Muslims are the great majority of the Syrian population comprising nearly 75% of the population, and the Alawites are a minority tribe falling under the umbrella of the arch-rival Shia group.  For the ruling family, this has always represented a significant threat to their rule, and to their general safety.  This threat was regarded as so significant, that detailed contingency plans were drawn up for the moment when Assad and his Alawite followers may be driven from power in Damascus.  These contingency plans are now the focus of attention, as it seems as if the moment for them to be activated is nearing.  It is rumoured that the plans involve the Alawites setting up some sort of independent homeland in the area of their stronghold in the Alawite Mountains, near to the Syrian towns of Homs and Tartous.  It is further rumoured that this new homeland would immediately seek international allies and recognition.  As ironic as it seems, Israel is one of the countries that have been identified for possible friendship with the Alawite nation when all of this transpires.  Suddenly, the new Alawite homeland and the State of Israel will have a common enemy in the form of Sunni-ruled Syria.  Such a relationship would, however, be complicated by the natural grouping of the Alawites alongside Iran, a fellow Shia majority country.

When contemplating the possibility of the above events taking place, it is clear that leaving Syria to the Sunnis following the flight of the Alawites to the mountains represents a huge threat to Israel.  Any situation that does not involve a formal handover of power in a controlled and organised fashion is a major threat on Israel's border.  This is particularly true when considering the quantity of arms and ammunition that Syria possesses.  It is also very likely that a Sunni-controlled Syria will forge much closer links with their Sunni compatriots in Hamas.  This is a further threat that Israel is forced to give serious thought to.  Shia-controlled Hezbollah may find themselves side-lined in this shift of power, but that organisation will continue to enjoy strong support and backing from their fellow Shias in Iran.

The possible new look in Syria set out above represents a major threat to the balance of power and stability in the Middle East.  Despite the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict has continued unabated for more than 65 years, there has been an element of stability within the regional conflict.  The relative quiet along the Syrian border has been part of that relative stability.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the Israeli government has not been vociferous in speaking out on the events taking place in Syria.  It may be that the Israeli government has no real interest to see the end of Assad's regime too quickly.  Sometimes, its better the devil you know ................

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