Skip to main content

After the fall of the House of Assad, could Syria be worse?

By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
July 27, 2012 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syrians in Aleppo flee clashes between the Syrian opposition and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrians in Aleppo flee clashes between the Syrian opposition and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Hayden: The endgame is approaching for the Syrian regime
  • He says bombing of a security meeting killed Assef Shawkat, a key member of regime
  • Bashar al-Assad lacks his father's skill or political sense, Hayden says
  • He says U.S. should back opposition elements but regime could be replaced by civil war

Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009, is a principal with the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. He serves on the boards of several defense firms and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University. Hayden is an adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

(CNN) -- Recent events have left Syria watchers near breathless: government loss of control of border crossings into Iraq and Turkey, rebels temporarily holding portions of Damascus, the unexplained movement of some of Syria's extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, and fighting spreading to the streets of the traditional Alawite stronghold of Aleppo.

Most dramatic though was the bombing of a National Security Council meeting in the heart of Syria's defense establishment, the Levantine equivalent of a bomb going off in the White House situation room. Among those killed was Assef Shawkat.

Shawkat was Syria's chief of military intelligence during my time at CIA. The agency spent a great deal of time trying to work with him to get the Syrians to stanch the flow of foreign fighters through Damascus airport and onward into Iraq.

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden

The Syrians never offered more than token cooperation, a policy that many in Damascus may now regret as the routes they sponsored have been reversed with fighters now entering Syria from Iraq.

Our assessment at the time that Shawkat was tough, professional and loyal has stood up. Married to President Bashar al-Assad's sister, he seems to have been providing a significant fraction of the regime's spine over the past year.

No one who has met al-Assad has come away impressed with the man's leadership or decisiveness. If fate had been more kind, his elder brother Bassel would not have crashed his car and died in an automobile accident and al-Assad could have lived out his days in an environment for which he was much better suited: doing eye surgery in London, building a happy family with his thoroughly Anglicized Sunni wife.

No one who has met Bashar al-Assad has come away impressed with the man's leadership or decisiveness.
Michael Hayden

Personally ill-equipped to enact any of the "reforms" he sometimes called for, unable or unwilling to bend the Assads, Mahkloufs and other Alawite clans to a new direction, al-Assad is now doubling down on his father's violent response to opposition with none of Hafez Assad's skill or political sense.

Opinion: Syria's chemical weapons threat demands response

I hesitate to call last week's events a tipping point, but Shawkatt's death (along with the other senior fatalities) will shake the Alawites to their core. Although some are irreversibly all in, there will certainly be others ready to cut their losses.

And so, many observers are now focusing on endgame scenarios, particularly what a successor regime might look like.

That question turns on what exactly is happening on the ground. The intelligence community has been continually asked to characterize the opposition -- its strengths, weaknesses, foreign influences. leadership, trustworthy personalities, untrustworthy components, political demands and overall intentions.

But beyond these discreet facts, the intelligence community will also have to provide a narrative and identify compelling plot lines to help inform and shape policy. There are actually several plots lines affecting Syria today, all of them true and all of them relevant.

Troops converge on Aleppo
Syria and Romney's foreign policy
Horrors of life in Syrian siege town
Syrian rebels show off weapons

In a curious way, at a macro-geopolitical level, we are seeing a resurgence of a broad East-West competition, with the Russians -- stung by what they view as the West's "bait and switch" U.N. resolution authorizing action in Libya -- joining the Chinese in blocking meaningful action through the United Nations.

Similarly, the broad Sunni-Shia competition in the region has Shia Iran trying to protect its lone Arab ally by putting its thumb on the Syrian scale with arms and advisors while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni states arm and train the opposition.

The most visible narrative is the one recorded on cell phone videos and broadcast daily showing a vicious, autocratic state using superior weaponry to gun down a determined and popular opposition. This is the plot line that has galvanized world opinion, igniting calls for intervention from a variety of sources.

As true as this narrative is, it is also incomplete. Syria is a multi-ethnic and religiously plural society. The Alawites and other Shia remnants comprise about 13% of the population; for 40 years they have controlled the state and have not hesitated to brutalize the more than 60% of the population who are Arab Sunnis and who are now in the streets attempting to overthrow their persecutors.

The rest of the population -- ethnic Kurds (10%), Druze (3%) and Christians (10%) -- remain largely on the sidelines, for now at least as fearful of a Sunni successor government as they are of continued Alawite control.

Thus we should not allow the dramatic power of the most visible narrative, the struggle between oppressed and oppressor, to drown out the sad reality of another less noble story line -- namely that this is still, at least for now, a sectarian conflict.

That this is the dominant narrative, the one that is most controlling and the one we should pay most attention to, is suggested by Vali Nasr's 2006 post mortem on Iraq. Nasr observed that we mistakenly "thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the state" rather than recognizing "that people in the Middle East see politics also as the balance of power among communities."

We would do well to keep that in mind as the Syrian end game approaches. We should accelerate work to get the minorities into the game against the regime, hastening its end and broadening its opposition. The Christian and Kurdish communities have historic ties to the West that should play to our advantage in this.

We should also meter our support to the opposition based on its inclusiveness. Syrians before the Assads lived in relative religious and ethnic harmony under largely Sunni rule. It could be so again, but Lebanon and Bosnia offer examples where historic harmonies have fractured.

The fall of the House of Assad is now as inevitable as it is welcome. But if this means a successor regime that is exclusively Sunni, trending fundamentalist and opposed by a third of the Syrian population, it could actually make things worse. And that would be a sad outcome indeed.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael V. Hayden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT