Skip to main content

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

By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Fri July 27, 2012
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT