Syria Civil War: The End of Assad Means an Islamic Winter


As the fighting in Syria between regime and rebels intensifies, doubts are festering up in the media that President Assad is going to use chemical weapons against rebel-held positions. President Obama, in turn, defined such use as a red line that will condition American intervention in the country. Alongside that, Washington is expected to recognize the Syrian opposition in-exile as the legitimate government next week. In the background, Turkey and NATO agreed on the deployment of Patriot missiles on the border with Syria for anti-air purposes. The end game for Syria is now within sight.

So, we might ask, why did we wait for nearly two years and 40,000 killed to come to an agreement about what’s happening in Syria? The dogged resistance of Assad and his potential last stand before Damascus falls is certainly one important factor, but it operates in a myriad of other important ones.

First, the so-called opposition was a patchwork of big and little groups, which incidentally included a lot of Islamist fighters from the surrounding countries and conflicts. This means that even if Assad is the common enemy, the big job isn’t fighting him — it’s about what comes after him, and there is no agreement on that, despite what might seem as a unified opposition.

Russian interests have played a significant role. Moscow allowed the deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey, even if the Kremlin is lackluster about it. That means the Russians either get to keep their base at Tartus, the Syrian arms market, or both in exchange — or they have been promised an appetizing stake in the future economic makeup of Syria. Time will tell what arrangement was made here and what part the Patriot system plays. The question arises in the first place because there is no reason why Turkey would need these systems when its air force is more than capable of tackling the job and its air defence assets are an effective insurance policy for the former.

In Egypt, we’re seeing that Islamic governments don’t like democracy very much. The protests against President Mursi are already costing lives. The army is right back where it was when the protests against Hosni Mubarak began, with tanks on the streets of Cairo. As a predominantly Muslim country left with no idea what to do post-Assad, Islam represents a very attractive alternative to socio-economic organization in Syria, as is already the case in practically every other Muslim country in the MENA region. The fact that Assad is the last relic of the secular leftist authoritarianism that defined the Mideast political regimes of his father’s generation is far from insignificant here. However, make no mistake: Islam will be the foundation of the next government in Syria. 

After Qaddafi was killed in Sirte, rivers of honey and butter were supposed to flow in Libya. Over a year since, however, that is not the case in the vast desert country. Prison escapes, in the true, untamed, Wild Maghreb style continue to be the daily digest in Tripoli, while international diplomats die in terrorist attacks in Benghazi. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

The conclusion that we can draw is that, yes, Assad will continue to hang on, but his time is limited. The rebels are going to continue resisting and fighting until Assad is either dead or disappeared in exile. From that point on, the situation will resemble that of a post-colonialist country: no vision on what Syria should be, how to get there or who will do it, despite the grand designs about democracy, peace and love. In such times, we get the likes of Suharto, Sese Seko, and, for color, disgruntled Malian generals staging coup d’états to no apparent effect except making things worse. Only this time it will have a decisive Islamic tint too.

In a word, the old patterns of power are going to re-emerge, just as they have done in Egypt.

If an Islamist government does take power in Syria, the international dimension will get interesting. The alliance between Syria and Egypt could be rekindled. Given that they will not be the only Sunni regimes in the Mideast anymore, Saudi Arabia might get to dip a finger in the barrel of honey too. Iran could come out looking better as well. Even if it is an Islamist country, it has some marginal claim of democracy because of its regular elections. In practical terms, this will mean military and economic cooperation. Despite the whole Shia–Sunni tension thing, business will keep going.

Turkey will also be important to watch. Ever since Recep Ergogan took power in 2002, The has turned Turkey from a secular state, gradually bringing it back to its Islamic roots. An Islamic Turkey will certainly find kin in the new regimes and help re-establish some dusty, but not forgotten links in the Middle East, as Ankara’s Euro-Atlantic orientations dim over time.  

In the short term, the upheavals will improve Israel’s security, but for the long term, the Jewish state might find itself in isolation, deeper than ever before. The reasoning here is that there isn’t one Islamic government (e.g. Saudi Arabia or Bahrain) that is friends with Israel, and with more such governments around, and now on its borders, the numbers are not going to improve.

The Arab Spring was supposed to be about ‘we the people’, and for a short while, maybe it was. But now the fantasy is over, and we might just be in for an Islamic Winter instead.