Stratfor: Syrian regime may survive, but with reduced clout

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A day after the Arab League announced that it is suspending its monitoring mission in Syria, Syrian activists continued their claims that Syrian forces had renewed an offensive in the Damascus suburbs against protesters defended by army defectors.

The leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) hopes that the apparent end of the Arab-led diplomatic mission will bring the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) one step closer to authorizing foreign military intervention to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. However, the United States — whose participation in a potential military intervention in Syria would be critical — is in no rush to elevate this conflict to another military campaign in the Middle East.

The attention is now on the UNSC and what kind of action it will take against Syria following the self-admitted failure of the Arab League monitoring mission. Russia, looking to maintain a foothold in the Mediterranean basin and keep its military base at Tartus, has created another diplomatic outlet by proposing to mediate between the Syrian government and the opposition. Moscow claims that the Syrian government has agreed to the talks, but the Syrian opposition, wary of Moscow’s continued support for the regime, has predictably refused the offer. Nonetheless, the United States appears to be entertaining the Russian proposal. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the United States supports a political solution to the crisis in Syria and that Washington is discussing with the Russians ways to pressure the Syrian government into ending its deadly crackdowns.

The United States is reluctant to engage in yet another complex military campaign with major spillover effects, along sectarian lines, in the wider Islamic world. At the same time, the Syrian regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid building the kind of moral pretense that led to the military intervention in Libya. This dynamic has led the United States to engage in quieter and less risky efforts to train and supply FSA rebels in Turkey — yet U.S. reticence toward military intervention has also enabled the al Assad regime’s survival.

Syria’s al Assad regime can likely hang on to power for quite some time if the United States continues to lack the bandwidth and political will to intervene in the country. This is especially true if European powers remain too wrapped up in their financial crisis to take military action, and as local parties opposed to al Assad — including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — don’t have the capability to intervene.

Even if it survives, the regime’s clout in the region will emerge dramatically reduced. Syria is already losing its leverage with Hamas — and thus a powerful tool against Israel — now that Hamas’ exiled leadership is choosing to move its headquarters from Damascus. Hamas is warming relations with Jordan, Egypt and Qatar at the expense of the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Syrian Alawite regime.

Syrian influence in Lebanon remains significant. But rebels are increasingly making use of supply lines emanating from northern Lebanon, thus casting doubt on the strength of the usually pervasive Syrian intelligence and security apparatus in Lebanon. Without a strong presence there, the Syrian regime could see its influence over its web of militant proxies decline — and actors such as the United States and Israel will see less reason to negotiate with Syria if Damascus can no longer provide a reliable check on Hezbollah’s actions.

The Syrian regime’s diplomatic relationship with Ankara is also badly deteriorating. Even if a surviving Syrian regime were able to re-establish relations with its Turkish neighbor, Turkey’s long-term priorities will continue to include the replacement of the Alawite regime with a Sunni government backed by Ankara.

Finally, a surviving Syrian regime would be greatly isolated from the Arab world and all the more dependent on Iran for support. But even Iranian support for the al Assad clan is not iron-clad: While Tehran wants to maintain an Alawite regime favorable to Iranian interests, Iran is not wedded to the al Assad clan. Russia, too, wants to maintain a minority regime on the Mediterranean coast — a regime more likely to turn to Russia for foreign backing, rather than the United States or Turkey, and to allow Russia to maintain a base at Tartus. Rumors circulating in the region over the past couple of months suggest that Russia and Iran have consulted on a possible exit strategy for the al Assad clan that would leave Damascus with an Alawite regime friendly to both countries. It is still too early to tell whether the al Assad clan would acquiesce to such a plan while they might yet ride out the crisis. And even if Moscow and Tehran could help execute a largely superficial regime change, the move could backfire if new leaders are unable to consolidate control and civil conflict breaks out. What is becoming increasingly evident, however, is that survival for the Syrian regime will likely come at the cost of significantly reduced regional clout for an extended period of time.

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“Syrian regime may survive, but with reduced clout” republished with the permission of Stratfor, www.stratfor.com