The danger of winning in Syria

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Syrian dictator Bashar Assad fled Damascus last week after three senior officials were killed by a suicide bomber. He's reportedly holed up in the coastal city of Latakiat. Whether Mr. Assad is driven from power depends mostly on what he's willing to do to keep it.

Syria will use weapons of mass destruction if attacked by foreigners, the foreign ministry declared Monday. Satellite photos indicate the regime has been removing chemical munitions from storage sites, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported May 30.

The regime would never use these weapons against its own people, said a foreign ministry spokesman. But a former official told the BBC Mr. Assad wouldn't hesitate to use WMD against the rebels.

Mr. Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Alawites make up just 10 percent to 12 percent of Syrians (70 percent are Sunni Muslims), but hold almost all the important jobs. So most Alawites, not just Mr. Assad, must keep riding the tiger, or be consumed by it.

In 1982, Mr. Assad's father massacred at least 10,000 Sunni Islamist rebels in the city of Hama. Islamists have been looking for payback ever since. If dad was so ruthless then, why wouldn't junior be as ruthless now? The 19,000 dead so far may be just a down payment on the ultimate butcher's bill.

What happens to Syria's WMD if Mr. Assad is ousted?

He could turn them over to Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored terror group that dominates Lebanon. That would be bad for the United States and very bad for Israel, which says it will strike if it happens. If the rebels capture the WMD, it could be worse, because Islamists aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida are prominent among them.

Syria has hundreds of tons of chemical munitions, has weaponized infectious diseases and had a nuclear weapons program until the Israelis bombed it in 2008.

Most dangerous in the hands of terrorists are biological weapons. Small amounts kill many. Because infectious diseases spread, they go on killing, far from the site of the attack.

Chemical weapons aren't of much use to terrorists. The exception is VX nerve gas, which can contaminate a site for weeks.

The Syrian conflict has intensified Muslim sectarian strife. Iran supports Mr. Assad. Saudi Arabia and Turkey supply the rebels with money and arms.

It's also revived Cold War tensions. Russia and China back the regime, the United States and NATO the rebels.

The naval base at Tartus in Syria is Russia's only one outside the old Soviet Union. Mr. Assad spends billions on Russian military equipment. Shale gas and the recession have hammered Russian exports of oil and natural gas, so weapons sales matter more now than ever. All this goes away if Mr. Assad does. Russia reportedly has thousands of military advisers in Syria to see that he doesn't.

Iran will lose its land link to Hezbollah if Mr. Assad falls. So Iran, too, provides military support.

If Mr. Assad is ruthless, a likely outcome is the breakup of Syria. The Alawites would control their enclave in the northwest; the Kurds theirs in the northeast; the Druze in the southwest; the Sunni Arabs in the rest of the country.

Modern Syria was carved from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire. Religious and ethnic groups who don't like each other much were thrown together for the convenience of France. Regional autonomy could be better -- if it weren't for the chaos and bloodshed that would accompany disintegration.

Bloodshed could spill across borders. The foreign ministry's warning was directed at Western powers that might intervene to secure Syria's WMD. Western intervention could trigger a military confrontation with Russia, Iran or both.

Mr. Assad is an evil, mean, nasty, rotten guy who sponsors terrorism, so many Republicans are urging President Barack Obama to do more to oust him. But as a secular dictator aligned with Russia, Mr. Assad accepts restraints that Islamists do not.

Whatever happens in Syria, the forces of evil will prevail. We don't know yet which evil. In the meantime, it's better to have Sunni and Shiite extremists fight each other than plot attacks on us. And as long as Mr. Assad is fighting for survival at home, he is less likely to make trouble for Israel or Lebanon.

So in Syria, "leading from behind" is in America's interest.

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476).


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