The future of Syria

Will Syria be the next Arab country to take a major step towards reform?

Bashar Assad has been slowly removing from positions of authority his father's hardliners and replacing them with his own loyalists. But to what end? Does he have his own, Gorbachev-like agenda of reform? And if not, can he maintain his position against external pressure?

Syria has almost no allies. Only Iran is vaguely friendly and Gulf states are openly hostile. The Syrian military and intelligence services are providing support to terrorists in both Iraq and Lebanon, but their clients are retreating in both countries. New governments with growing public support are determined to defeat their countries' enemies.

Assad is approaching a fork in the road. He needs to choose which way to go. Either he cuts loose those who are undermining Iraq and Lebanon, and directly co-operates with Iraq's western allies to do it, or he will find there are consequences to his isolation.

Syria has its own religious, political and ethnic tensions. If Syria can sponsor anti-government forces in Iraq and Lebanon, then Iraq, Lebanon and their allies can return the favour. Bringing down, or at least weakening, the Assad regime is not likely to require a full-scale invasion as in Iraq. The CIA and special forces were able to bring down the Taliban in weeks. Syria might be harder, but it would not be hard to destablise the regime.

So what is it to be, Bashar? Do you want to be the next Pervez Musharraf or the next Mohammed Omar?

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