My new column is up at The American Prospect:
Bashar al-Assad has not yet fallen. I note this only because of the tone of inevitability in some news reports on Syria’s civil war. The downfall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi may be no more predictive than a roulette ball falling on red in the last three spins. Arguably, the popular convulsion in the Middle East began not in Tunisia in late 2010 but in Teheran in mid-2009, when the Iranian regime—Assad’s patron—crushed a popular revolution and erased the immense hopes it had raised.
Still, it would be foolish to bet heavily on Assad’s long-term survival as Syria’s leader. His forces may have retaken rebel-held suburbs of Damascus this week, but armed rebels holding suburbs of a capital even for a few days is the political equivalent of a tubercular cough.
Wagering on when the regime will crumble or what will replace it is equally risky. Assad has already defied Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s December prediction that the Syrian regime had only “weeks” left. Assad and the Alawite minority’s rule could last into 2013 or beyond but are “doomed in the long run,” writes Joshua Landis, an American expert and editor of the Syria Comment blog— an evaluation made more damning by Landis’s pro-Assad reputation. Then again, a Lebanese expert suggested to me this week that the Alawite-led army might try to follow the Egyptian example, sacrificing the dictator so that it can remain the real power. A Sunni takeover, perhaps by the Muslim Brotherhood, is also possible—or a sectarian war of all against all.
But this is certain: When a tubercular cough racks Syria, the Middle East shakes. The country’s location and its entanglement in other people’s politics guarantee that. The war inside Syria is already having an impact outside. Its outcome will have stronger effects, which in turn will force America to adjust its policies in the region. Here’s a brief and partial rundown on where things stand in the region:
Lebanon: “Cold war” is the term used by Lebanese experts to describe the country’s politics. The pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian front led by Hezbollah is on one side; the pro-Western and pro-Saudi front is on the other. Over the last ten months, their verbal sparring has gotten much nastier, says political scientist Hilal Khashan of Beirut’s American University.
The hot war in Syria has also splashed over the border. The Free Syrian Army rebels who have held the Syrian town of Zabadani are based just across the border in Lebanon; Syrians wounded by government forces have been treated in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah snipers are reportedly fighting on the government’s side in Syria, and the Shiite organization has allegedly tried to apprehend Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon—albeit keeping a low profile to avoid embarrassing the Beirut government. …
Read the rest here.