With the recent United States actions in Syria, a look back in time is in order to help us put the American relationship with the Assad regime into perspective.
Back in July 1986, a Central Intelligence Agency classified document entitled "Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change" was produced and circulated at the highest levels among the Reagan Administration. The report was prepared by the Agency's interestingly monikered Foreign Subversion and Instability Center, part of the Office of Global Issues and proposed "...a number of possible scenarios that could lead to the ouster of President Assad or other dramatic change in Syria...". The President Assad referred to in the document is Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad took over as president of Syria in 1971 after a military coup in in 1966 which brought the Ba'ath Party to power. He served as president until his death on June 10, 2000. What many of us forget is that he actually improved relations between the West and Syria by supporting the United States-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.
Here is the cover memorandum for the rather somewhat "sanitized" document along with the circulation list:
The document opens by noting that President Assad's position within Syria was strong and that Syria was "enjoying unprecedented stability and a high degree of grudging respect in the Arab world". The document purported to "...identify the individuals and groups that might impel or impede takeover attempts and presents indicators that would suggest specific scenarios are unfolding...". It goes on to note that Syria is governed by an Alawite minority that is deeply resented by Syria's Sunni majority and that factionalism has become entrenched in the nation's political and military elite. The document anticipated that there were several scenarios that could see the Assad regime toppled:
1.) A power struggle over succession - the writers of the document suggested that the President's brother, Rifaat, was well positioned to succeed Hafez but that his unpopularity would result in a very short term in power. The document notes that there is a lack of a dominant leader which could create a situation in which there is factional infighting over the division of power, resulting in a scenario where there is a cycle of military coups with no leader able to retain power over the medium- and long-term.
While that scenario may have been anticipated by the CIA, Assad's first choice as successor was his brother, Rifaat, who was exiled from Syria when he attempted to seize power in 1983 - 1984. Hafez' next choice was his eldest son, Bassel, who was killed in 1994 in a car accident. He then turned to his younger son, Bashar, the current President, who took over the presidency in 2000 in a peaceful transition.
2.) Mismanagement of the conflict with Israel or the role of Syria in the Lebanon civil war - the writers of the document suggest that Syria's goal of achieving military parity with Israel could lead to an Israeli preemptive attack. As well, Assad's goal of achieving control over Lebanon might result in significant losses by the military which was largely Sunni. A military setback on the disputed Golan Heights would have the greatest potential for creating anti-regime protests. If Assad were to use excessive force in crushing Sunni-led dissent, this could lead to further instability.
3.) Factional tensions between the Alawis and Sunnis - the writers of the document note that Sunni dissidence had been minimal since Assad crushed the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in Hama in 1982 but that there were residual deep-seated tensions. Here is a quote from the document giving us a prophetic glimpse at what lay ahead for Syria and its sectarian war:
"Although we judge that fear of reprisals and organizational problems make a second Sunni challenge unlikely, an excessive government reaction to minor outbreaks of Sunni dissidence might trigger large-scale unrest. In most instances the regime would have the resources to crush a Sunni opposition movement, but we believe widespread violence among the populace could stimulate large numbers of Sunni officers and conscripts to desert or munity, setting the stage for civil war....Sunnis make up 60 percent of the Syrian officer corps but are concentrated in junior officer ranks; enlisted men are predominantly Sunni conscripts. We believe that a renewal of communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis could inspire Sunnis in the military to turn against the regime."
Here are two screen captures showing the indicators of the anticipated scenario:
The document also notes that:
"A general campaign of Alawi violence against Sunnis might push even moderate Sunnis to join the opposition. Remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood–some returning from exile in Iraq–could provide a core of leadership for the movement. Although the regime has the resources to crush such a venture, we believe brutal attacks on Sunni civilians might prompt large numbers of Sunni officers and conscripts to desert or stage mutinies in support of dissidents, and Iraq might supply them with sufficient weapons to launch a civil war."
Keeping in mind that this document was written during the final years of the Cold War and that the Soviet Union was an ally of Syria, the document notes that Moscow's status in Syria would depend on the makeup of a new regime. In spite of his dependence on Soviet military aid, Assad was cautious about excessive Soviet influence within Syria and had, in fact, gone against Moscow's wishes by invading Lebanon in 1976. If the new regime was led by the Alawite minority, the relationship between the Soviet Union and Syria would likely have remained static. If, however, the Sunnis gained power, Moscow's position would likely have been weakened because of Sunni resentment of the Soviet support for the Alawite minority.
So, what were the anticipated implications for the United States? The authors of the document suggest that the worst outcome for Washington would be a scenario of chronic instability interrupted by a series of military coups that resulted in a Syria that had incoherent leadership and increased volatility. This would create a situation where there would be little chance of furthering the Middle East peace process. Ironically and prophetically, the authors also note that "...a weak central government in Damascus might add to Syria's attractiveness as a haven for terrorists...".
The document noted that U.S. interests would be best served with a Sunni regime controlled by business-oriented moderates. This would result in a scenario where Syria's new leadership would see a need for Western aid and investment to build Syria's economy. As is typical of Washington, it's all about what's in it for America's highly influential business interests.
Given what has happened in Syria over the three decades since this document was written, it if fascinating to see how much of the anticipated scenario has played out. Syria has long been in the crosshairs of the United States, particularly because it has played a front row role in the Arab world's anti-Israel movement. The document also anticipates the potential for terrorists to use a divided Syria as a "haven" and, in closing, makes this chilling proposal:
"Although Syria’s secular traditions would make it extremely difficult for religious zealots to establish an Islamic Republic, should they succeed they would likely deepen hostilities with Israel...".
Just what the world needed, another Islamic Republic founded on fundamentalist Islam.