Could the Assad dynasty be crumbling?
Since the outbreak of unrest across Syria three months ago, a few analysts have been arguing that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is too important to fall. If the regime crumbles, according to these analysts, militant groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas will be let loose, and their unpredictable violent behavior might bring chaos to the whole Middle East region. But such an argument does not stand.
On the one hand, if the Assad regime in Syria is the godfather of Hezbollah and Hamas, and it collapses, then the two groups will be substantially weakened by losing their sponsor. If the Assad regime, on the other hand, depends on these groups for its regional leverage and it collapses, then the region might be spared wars like that of Lebanon, 2006, and Gaza, 2008, which are believed by some to have been fought to help Syria's fortunes at the international level.
Arguing that the downfall of the Assad regime will send both Hezbollah and Hamas into unpredictable violent adventures against Israel—or against their fellow Lebanese or fellow Palestinians—suggests that Hezbollah and Hamas are managed by brainless ruthless leaders whose thirst for blood is kept in check by the Assad regime alone. This is far from the truth. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have canny leaders whose experience has been shaped by long years in politics and militia warfare. While it is true that both groups endorse radical Islamist creeds, this does not make them loose cannons that can be only controlled by Assad and his crew.
The Assad regime and his protégés, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, have been using another scarecrow line: If the Assad regime falls, civil strife will spill over from Syria to Lebanon. However, there seems to be no evidence to substantiate such a scenario. Lebanon today is under complete control by Hezbollah, which runs the nation's security, military and intelligence services, as well as parliament and the new prime minister designate.
For civil war to break out in Lebanon, a force should be able to challenge Hezbollah's dominance. Again, there is no evidence that such a situation is in the offing in Lebanon. Even if the Assad regime falls and the Sunnis of Syria, a majority of the population, are freed from Assad's grip, there is no reason to believe that Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis will link up to face Hezbollah. Should Assad fall, it is most probable that the Sunnis of both Syria and Lebanon will keep on taking their cue from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, none of which seem to be interested in funding, arming or instigating civil war in either Syria or Lebanon. A proof that the Sunnis of the Levant are not interested in civil wars can be found in Iraq where the better trained, armed and funded post-Saddam Sunnis helped eject radical Al-Qaeda and joined the cabinet in Baghdad.
Should the Assad regime fall, doomsday scenarios are the least probable. Both Hezbollah and Hamas will lose a reliable ally, and might probably duck down until they figure out how to replace their precious sponsor. In fact, Assad's weakness has already caused anxiety among the Hamas leadership, which has shown flexibility by accepting the terms for reconciliation with its opponent, the Palestinian Authority.
Hezbollah too will find itself on the back foot in the case of the demise of the Assad regime. Hezbollah will abstain from any kind of violence. The fact that Hezbollah has so far distanced itself from the cross-border clashes on the Lebanese-Israeli borders that left 10 people dead shows that, after the destruction the 2006 war brought on Lebanon, Hezbollah has become sensitive to going to war with Israel. Hezbollah understands that for its host environment—the Shi’a community of Lebanon—to remain receptive to the party and its activity in their midst, Hezbollah cannot take them to destructive wars every few years.
In the past, late President Hafez Al-Assad understood the limitations of "turning the table" at the regional level. He kept a lid on Hezbollah, who were always allowed to practice low-intensity warfare against Israel. Such war was annoying enough for the Israelis to make them want to negotiate with Assad over "regulating" it, not stopping it altogether.
But Hafez's son and successor, Bashar, committed the mistake of allowing Hezbollah to become such a formidable force that, during the 2006 war, Israel kept on pounding Hezbollah and Lebanon until the party and its sponsors in Syria and Iran agreed to a complete halt of aggression. Today, any Hezbollah action against Israel will bring a similar destructive war. Gone are the days of low-intensity Hezbollah operations that allowed Assad to pose as guarantor of stability. Assad the son pushed his luck and changed the status quo to an all-or-nothing situation between Hezbollah and Israel. Therefore, Assad became irrelevant. Also, many now argue that by allowing Hezbollah's arsenal to balloon, the group became stronger than its sponsor, Assad, who lost influence over the party.
The days of Hezbollah and Hamas making trouble until getting the nod from the Assad regime to calm down are now history. If Assad falls, Hezbollah and Hamas will be weakened, not on the loose and as dangerous as some suggest.