Scenarios: Stakes high for region as Syria protests unfold

BEIRUT Tue Apr 19, 2011 6:25am EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest challenge of his 11 years in power, has tried repression, economic handouts and promises of reform to quell an unprecedented month-long wave of popular protests.

Yet the unrest, which rights groups say has cost more than 200 lives, including 17 on Monday, shows no sign of abating.

Assad and his father before him have ruled Syria under a tough emergency law in force since 1963, bolstered by the Baath party, the military and an array of fearsome security agencies.

While the Syrians demanding freedom seem far from dislodging Assad, no Arab ruler can feel secure in a region electrified by the swift fall of autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia this year.

The Assads, whose country sits on the fault lines of many Middle Eastern conflicts, have pursued relatively predictable external policies. Any political change in Syria would be a big deal for its friends and foes alike in a volatile region.

Following are some scenarios of what could happen in Syria and the risks and opportunities they would present:

* ASSAD KEEPS POWER, ENACTS REFORM

Conceivably, the Syrian president may decide to bend with the wind and implement far-reaching reform. Last week he promised to replace emergency law and appointed a new cabinet.

But protesters will want proof the 45-year-old leader can make a real break with the past. Previously he has resisted political reform. His attempts to modernize a socialist-style economy have failed to create enough jobs or alleviate hardship.

Assad's problem is that dismantling the apparatus of repression, enshrining the rule of law to defeat corruption or allowing new parties to challenge his Baath party would remove the props of his power with no guarantees of political survival.

Such a high-risk course could regain popular support for Assad, but he would have to undermine his own entourage and ditch the authoritarian template used since his formidable father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970.

* PROTEST MOVEMENT IS CRUSHED

Nearly 30 years ago, the elder Assad ruthlessly put down an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands of people in the city of Hama in military operations cloaked from international view.

That degree of violence would be harder to get away with today, when Syrians, despite state curbs on media, can use their mobile phone cameras to post footage of protests on YouTube.

Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry now says Syria is facing an armed insurrection by Salafi Muslims. Security forces led by Assad relatives and allies have shown few qualms in detaining dissidents or using batons, bullets and tear gas on protesters.

Hanging tough seems the likeliest default option for an embattled Assad as he seeks to rally support from his own minority Alawite community, sections of the Sunni majority and many other Syrians with a stake in the status quo.

* ASSAD QUITS OR IS OVERTHROWN

Barely thinkable just a few weeks ago, regime change remains a long shot, although the persistence of protests despite bloody crackdowns has shortened the odds that Assad might buckle.

What might come next -- a peaceful transition of power, a military coup, prolonged instability or civil war -- is anyone's guess. The 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein, the Arab world's only other Baathist ruler, plunged Iraq into years of violent chaos.

Sunni-majority Syria, dominated under the Baathists by its 10 percent Alawite minority, has other ethnic-sectarian divides, with restive Kurds as well as Druze and Christian communities.

Anti-Assad demonstrators have stressed national unity rather than narrower identities -- and many have called only for reform rather than regime change. But if Baathist rule collapsed, Syria would enter the unknown and long-hidden strains could surface.

* REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS

Under any scenario, Syria is likely to be preoccupied with its internal problems for many months, reducing the chances that it will undertake any major initiative such as resuming peace negotiations with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights.

The impact of any regime change would reverberate across the Arab world and Iran. Syria, still formally at war with Israel, also has borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

Israel might be sorry if Assad fell. Although he has helped arm Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and harbored Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he has maintained the calm prevailing on the Israeli-Syrian border since the 1973 war.

Turmoil in Syria might see the pragmatic Baathists dislodged by Islamist or nationalist groups more hostile to Israel.

The United States, its hands full in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, said on Monday it was not working to undermine the Syrian government -- although the Washington Post, citing leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, said Syrian exiles and other dissidents had received up to $6 million in U.S. funds since 2006.

For all Syria's opposition to U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East, it has played a cautious hand, balancing its Arab nationalist ideology and links with Iran against its desire for acceptance in the West and ultimately peace with Israel.

On the other hand, Washington would see advantages in a new Sunni leadership in Damascus that might end Syria's three-decade alliance with Shi'ite Iran and support for Hezbollah, in favor of closer ties with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers.

That would reshape the political landscape in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its Shi'ite and Christian allies now hold the upper hand over their U.S.-backed Sunni and Christian opponents.

Any downgrading of Iran's alliance with Syria, its main conduit for aid to Hezbollah and Hamas, would damage Tehran's ability to project its influence in the Middle East.

Iraq, a former Baathist rival of Syria and still on uneasy terms, would also feel the ripples from any upheaval in Damascus, which has played an often ambivalent role in its eastern neighbor since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Most combustible for Lebanon, Iraq and the region would be sectarian or ethnic conflict in Syria, should it lose its secular Baathist straitjacket, fuelling tensions elsewhere between Sunnis and Shi'ites, Arabs and Kurds, or Christians and Muslims.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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