Post-Assad Syria less likely to go Islamist than Egypt, say experts

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Islamists are far less likely to come to power in Syria than in Egypt if the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ultimately falls, respected Middle East experts tell The Daily Caller.

“I think it would be very hard … for Islamists to seize control of the country and turn it into some sort of worst-case scenario,” Andrew Tabler, the Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of the recently released book “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” told TheDC.

“Does it mean that [Islamists] would have no role in it? No, they probably would,” Tabler, who spent seven years living in Syria, added, “but it would be much more watered-down as a result of the divisions inside the Sunni community as well as the fact that about a full quarter of the Syrian population — a little over a quarter — are minorities.”

Renowned Middle East scholar Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Relations Center and author of “The Truth About Syria,” was not quite as categorical in rejecting the possibility of an Islamist takeover of Syria, but told TheDC that it was certainly more unlikely a scenario than in Egypt.

“There is a very real chance of an Islamist takeover but it is lower than in Egypt,” he said. “The Syrians are more urbanized, more secular, and most important of all far more diverse. Remember that in Egypt 90 percent are Sunni Muslim Arabs while in Syria that figure is about 60 percent. The Syrian Brotherhood has never been as strong as its Egyptian counterpart.”

This analysis meshes with what American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told TheDC in September, that the opposition in Syria was more “pluralistic” and that Islamists were not particularly powerful and organized. One reason the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is weaker than in Egypt is that it was decimated by the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. In the city of Hama in 1982, for instance, he ordered a massacre that killed at least least 10,000 Syrians (and possibly multiples of that) under the pretext of rooting out the Islamist threat to his regime. (RELATED: TheDC Interview: US ambassador to Syria on what comes after Assad)

But even if not controlled by Islamists, would a post-Assad Syrian regime likely be more favorable to the United States than the the current terrorist-sponsoring, Iranian-aligned Syrian dictatorship?

“If a non-Islamist regime emerges it would be less hostile to the United States but whether that’s by a small or significant margin is open to question,” Rubin argued.

“There is some real anti-Americanism in the opposition. The Obama Administration has put the Untied States into the position of being regarded by many Syrians as protector of the Assad regime. It’s one thing to have that happen in Egypt — a government that was allied with America — but why in Syria, the most anti-American of all Arab regimes?”

Tabler said that he thinks that a post-Assad regime would be less likely to support the terrorist group Hamas, as the Assad regime currently does.

“I think they would be more hostile to Hamas. It would politically cost them a lot more I think than the current arrangement,” he explained.

“But that doesn’t mean that the Syrian opposition doesn’t care about the Palestinian issue. They do of course. They want a resolution to this. But they also know that this issue has been used to justify one of the most tyrannical regimes in the Middle East and to ruin their lives, essentially, so I don’t think they’re going to want to do that after Assad leaves.”

One fear, however, is that Syria would erupt in civil war in the vacuum left by Assad. While Ambassador Ford said such a prospect is a possibility, even if not an inevitability, Tabler said he finds the scenario unlikely.

“I think most of the time it’s going to be fighting of the regime as it goes out,” he said. “After that, if the conditions were right, then there would be an ability to come together. You know, they are already suffering extensively in terms of the economy.”

It goes without saying that before a post-Assad Syria can emerge, Syria’s tyrannical tormentor has to leave or be forced from power. Since Syrians began revolting against Assad’s rule earlier this year, his regime has killed more than 2,700 Syrians and injured many more, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The question remains: Will Assad be able to ultimately hold on to power through force?

“I think it’s very hard for Assad to ultimately solve this. The numbers just aren’t with him. I mean, Syria has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East,” Tabler explained. “All of those [young] people are out in the street, and they’re hitting the job market and he just hasn’t launched reforms that can accommodate them in anyway and now they are calling for the downfall of the regime.”

Rubin said that while “nobody knows” whether Assad can hold on, the situation in Syria is only likely to become more violent.

“One thing is for certain: looking at other dictator having been hung, put on trial, or fleeing into exile, the family of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies will not go quietly. Only if  they are forced out of power at gunpoint will they be displaced,” he said. “The wider problem is that the government does have a strong base of support among the Alawite minority, Christians, and some Sunni Muslims. These people are worried about being targeted by a revolution, even with the possibility of massacres against the first two groups, which comprise roughly one-quarter of the population.”

“In other words,” he concluded, “the battle will continue for months, will probably become more violent, and the outcome is not certain.”

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