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U.S. should encourage regime change in Syria

As the wave of revolution continues to sweep through the Arab world, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad could be its next victim. While many in the United States and Israel appear hesitant to support Syria's anti-regime forces — basing their thinking on the old maxim that the devil you know is better than the one you don't — this viewpoint overlooks the major benefits both for the United States and for Israel if the Assad regime is ousted.

Those hesitant to support Mr. Assad's overthrow point to the fact that he, like his late father Hafez Assad (who died in 2000), has kept Syria's border with Israel on the Golan quiet, and that he has, on occasion, stated that he would be willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel. On the other hand, Bashar Assad, like his father before him, has allied Syria with Iran, a country that opposes Israel's existence, and is a major supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas, terrorist organizations also dedicated to Israel's destruction. Indeed, Syria has used both in proxy wars against Israel.

The Alawites, Mr. Assad's Shiite sect that currently runs Syria, are only 12 percent of the Syrian population; the majority are Sunnis. Should the Assad regime be overthrown and a secular or even a moderate Sunni regime replace it, there is a very good chance that the bond between Syria and Iran would be broken, and Syria's ties with Hezbollah and Hamas would be seriously weakened. The end result would be a reversal of the forward thrust of Iranian power in the Arab world, given Iran's close ties to Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — and a major success for U.S. and Israeli diplomacy in the Middle East.

The question, of course, is how to ensure that the regime replacing Mr. Assad's would play a positive role in the Middle East, as opposed to the spoiler role played by both Assads in the past. Though Mr. Assad claims the anti-regime demonstrations against him, which have now spread to downtown Damascus, have been incited by the United States, Israel and Sunni fundamentalists (a very odd alliance indeed), the fact is, neither the U.S. nor Israel can orchestrate his ouster. Nevertheless, there are things the United States, the European Union and Israel could do to help ensure that the regime that follows Mr. Assad's plays a positive role in the Middle East.

Israel, for example, could announce that it would be willing to return the entire Golan Heights — providing Israel's security and water concerns were taken into consideration — to a Syrian regime that was genuinely democratic, if that regime signed a peace treaty with Israel incorporating trade, tourism and diplomatic relations. (As former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said, "I will know that there is a real peace with Syria when I can go shopping in Damascus.") To be sure, many Israelis, remembering Syrian forces firing down on the Galilee from the Golan Heights before the 1967 war, would be loathe to give up the Golan. Nonetheless, the security benefits to Israel of a Syria that has broken its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would be well worth the return of the Golan.

For their part, the United States and the European Union can take both political and economic actions that could contribute to a positive evolution of Syrian politics and foreign policy. Syria faces a severe economic crisis (caused by a multiyear drought, economic mismanagement and corruption), which has led to rising unemployment — especially among Syrian youth. U.S. and EU promises of major doses of economic aid, the lifting of economic sanctions and the possibility of free-trade agreements would be of major importance to a post-Assad regime struggling with Syria's economic problems. However, the economic aid should be linked to a number of political conditions, such as freedom of the press, freedom to organize political parties and protection of ethnic and religious minorities. (Christian groups are particularly worried about their fate if a post-Assad regime is dominated by Islamists.)

The ousting of the Assad regime will not be easy. Bashar Assad controls Syria's security services; his brother is in charge of an army division in Damascus; and his brother-in-law plays a central role in Syria's intelligence service. Nonetheless, if Israel, the United States and the European Union are willing to make their offers now, while protests in Syria are increasing in intensity, there is a good possibility that anti-regime forces will be strengthened, and this could facilitate the collapse of the Assad regime.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His books include "Israel Under Rabin," "Contemporary Israel" and the forthcoming "Six Decades of U.S.-Israeli Relations." His email is rofreedman@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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