The campaign the Alawites have waged in order to keep their reign on Syria or even survive is far from being over. With pressure from a bleeding Sunni majority, international public opinion, and economic sanctions on Syria from Western states - chiefly the United States, many Israeli leaders were hoping that Bashar Assad would be deposed within a matter of weeks, yet their hopes have been dashed.
Assad was right in saying that an upheaval in his country would trigger a global earthquake that would extend beyond the reaches of the Middle East.
The struggle in Syria takes place on a number of levels. Fundamentally, it is a conflict between the Alawite minority (7%), which is closely affiliated with the Shia, and the Sunni majority, which makes up some 75% of the population. The next level up is the regional struggle between Sunnis and Shiites over hegemony in the Middle East. Led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni are pitted against Iran and the Shiite groups in Iraq, the Persian Gulf (mainly Bahrain) and in eastern Saudi Arabia.
At its highest level, this is a struggle between the West, on one hand, and Russia and China, on the other. These players are vying for influence and control in vital areas of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin. Notwithstanding, there are other important players as well, such as India. Amid this fray are also battles over ideals, such as democracy, freedom and human dignity – all of which are values that are subject to different interpretation. However, without resolving the issues at this level, there will be no solution.
It would be a grave diplomatic mistake to think that Israel is in the eye of the storm, seemingly untouched by the unfolding events. Playing a prominent part in all the levels of this struggle, Iran will see the fate of its far-reaching aspirations – also in connection with Israel – largely sealed by the final outcome of the struggle over Damascus.
Syria has become Tehran’s Achilles’ heel. Should the drama culminate with Assad’s downfall and the rise of a regime that shuns the intensifying Iranian presence in the country, the regional balance of power will change. The Ayatollahs regime would be dealt such a blow that it might have to relinquish its nuclear program in order to ensure its survival.
However, should Assad survive this campaign - with the support of Russia, China and Iran - we might witness a reemergence of the East – West struggle which we lived through most of the second half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, Iran will have scored a significant achievement. We will in fact be seeing Iran along our entire northern border. In addition to the Syrian finger poised to push the button of the chemical missiles that cover all of Israel's territory, we might also see an Iranian one. This would be a turn of events that Israel would not be able to come to terms with.
The crisis will not end as the Sunni countries (including Turkey) and the West would like it to. It cannot end without satisfying the interests of both Russia and China. The Russians sustained two strategic failures in the region in the past decade. Having seen two of its major clients - Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi - deposed, it suffered a setback.
Moscow cannot afford another failure. The Syrian crisis has given it an excellent opportunity to repair the damage - at least partially. By supporting Assad at this time, Russia and China are telling the West that it will not be able to end this crisis without their cooperation.
These reasons underlie the core of Israel’s strategic agenda. Five times Russia and China had joined forces with the United States to vote in favor of sanctions against Iran. Both of them have a vested interest in staving off Tehran from threatening the world with nuclear weapons. Removing that threat can be achieved by means other than a military strike or crippling sanctions that could imperil the tenuous global economic stability. There is a third option, namely an agreement on Syria’s future without Iranian presence. This will deal Tehran a serious blow.
The United States and Russia need to formulate a common interest that will serve them both. Washington will be forced to pay Moscow a certain price – namely the continued security alliance between Syria and Russia; the latter will have to requite by allowing Assad’s fall. If that happens, the Iranian threat will be lifted, and the whole world will stand to gain.