With Syria’s minority Shiite Alawite government overseeing a majority Sunni population, its strategic location and its web of alliances including the radical Hamas and Hezbollah movements, regime change could look a lot more like it did in Iraq than in Egypt — and the ramifications could prove even more profound.
“If the regime collapses you will have civil war and it will spread throughout the region,” engulfing Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and beyond, said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “A collapse of the Syrian regime is a doomsday scenario for the entire Middle East.”
Many believe that is why the international community, including the United States, has offered such a tempered response to the bloodshed in Syria, the latest Arab country to be swept up in the unrest roiling the region. NATO warplanes are bombing Libya to protect civilians there, but there have been no calls even for Assad to step aside, despite an increasingly violent crackdown by the Syrian military in which at least 550 people have died. On Sunday, hundreds of people were detained as the military swept through towns and villages raiding homes in search of those who participated in recent protests, human rights groups said.
Analyst Rami Khouri describes Syria as the Middle East equivalent of a bank that’s too big to be allowed to fail. “The spillover effect would be too horrible to contemplate,” he wrote in a commentary in Beirut’s Daily Star.
“The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people.”
Part of the problem is that so little is known about what would come next should Assad be ousted. Egypt and Tunisia took great leaps into uncertainty when their regimes fell, but in each case the army, a known quantity, asserted its independence and seized power to oversee the transition.
In Syria, the army is so tightly bound to Assad’s Alawite clan that the fall of the regime would almost certainly lead to its disintegration, setting the stage for an Iraq-style implosion in which the state collapses, a majority seeks to exact revenge on a minority and regional powers pile in to assert their own interests, said Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, who writes the blog Syria Comment.
“Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East, and a struggle for control of Syria would be ignited,” he said.