What will happen to Syria when President Bashar al-Assad flees for Russia or Iran or, more likely, is killed by a Jabhat al-Nusra car bomb, a suicide bomber, opposition fighter or member of his inner circle?
If you think the Arab Spring turned into a major disappointment and strategic mess, post-Assad Syria will likely create an utter nightmare. What is already a disaster will most certainly get worse. Hizballah and the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, may very well get their hands on Syrian chemical and biological weapons as the Syrian state fractures along overlapping geographical, ethnographic and sectarian lines. The soon-to-be former rulers of Syria—the Alawis, who comprise only from 12 to at most 20 percent of the population—will likely flee the capital to form an enclave in Latakia Province, much as the Serbs did by creating the Republic of Srpska within Bosnia-Herzegovina. But this time, the minority and non-ruling rump state will have all the weapons, including chemical and biological ones, plus as much heavy armor and as many delivery vehicles as the Alawis can carry on their tactical retreat.
The center of gravity of the Syrian civil war has already passed. The Sunnis, who compose some 70 percent of the population, no longer cower before the Alawi regime. The pall of fear has been broken forever, and no amount of ghoulish regime violence can restore it. The vast majority of the population now views the conflict as more or less sectarian and more or less zero-sum, thanks to the intransigence of the Assad government and decades of Alawi repression and thievery. There is no going back: Either the Assad regime kills off the armed opposition or it falls, to be replaced by a Sunni-dominated alternative of some sort.
Assad, already fighting a losing battle, may well decide that a full-fledged sectarian bloodbath is in his interest, because it will force any fence-sitting Alawis from sub-clans other than his own to close ranks. That decision could be short-circuited by an Alawi-dominated military coup from within if fellow Alawis turn on him in the hopes of making some kind of peace with a new, Sunni-dominated government. The Russian and Iranian governments may see some sense in this too and offer to help, for fear of losing all influence over a post-Assad regime. If either the military or the Russians and Iranians wait too long—and they may already have—the opposition may refuse any part of any Alawi participation in a new government, preferring to flip Syria back where it started in the 1968–70 period and shove the Alawis back to the bottom of Syrian society. But since the Alawis have the lion’s share of the money and weapons, they will not meekly acquiesce in a return to second-class status. Some might want to flee to another country, and a few very senior figures might do so, including perhaps to Iran. But the only country where there is even a small Alawi population is Turkey, and that is not an option for most, given the current state of play. Far more likely would be an Alawi retreat to an enclave inside Syria, likely to the geographically defensible highlands of Latakia Province, their ancestral homeland. The Alawis would in effect be saying: “Here we are; come get us if you think you can.”
n Alawi enclave in Latakia would not be entirely without friends. Hizballah wants Assad to somehow survive, but if he can’t, it stands ready to help secure that enclave, likely with significant Iranian assistance. Hizballah’s leaders probably reason that a sectarian Shi‘a-Sunni conflict is inevitable sooner or later and that if the Shi‘a lose, Hizballah’s power within Lebanon could be further jeopardized, perhaps decisively so.
Ideally, Hizballah would want a new Syrian government to include Alawis and harbor no grudge against Shi‘a in southern Lebanon. But it’s hard to see that happening as long as Iran and Hizballah continue to support Assad, whose counter-insurgency strategy is to kill as many Sunnis as possible. Hizballah might pitch to a new, post-Assad Sunni government that it provides a buffer for Syria from Israel, and argue that it should therefore continue to merit some presence inside Syria. Hizballah, however, is not a creature of Syrian politics but of Lebanon’s, and there is no significant Twelver Shi‘a community in Syria to play the role of advocate. (The Alawi religion is an offshoot of Shi‘a Islam, as is commonly stated, but it is not that close to it either by way of theology or mutual perception; barely 1 percent of the Syrian population is Twelver Shi‘a.) The worst case for Hizballah would be a new Sunni-dominated state in Damascus that views Alawis and Shi‘a alike as irredeemable enemies to be culled from the country entirely and, if provoked, followed into Lebanon.
Iran, likewise, will probably be prepared to spend considerable financial and political capital to prop up the Assad regime, both directly and using Hizballah as a proxy. Iran has a huge investment in Syria, its only real ally. Iran thereby accrues geostrategic clout from being able to threaten Israel from the north. Iran’s fallback preference would be a Sunni regime that is more hostile to the West and Israel than to Iran, and one that would let Tehran help it to attack both. That would require a new Syrian regime to continue to allow Hizballah more or less free access into Syria from Lebanon. But that is highly unlikely to happen. Iran’s worst-case scenario, an implacably hostile Sunni regime, is far more likely given Iran’s military support to the Assad regime, which has now killed more than 80,000 Sunnis in Syria and has created upwards of 900,000 external refugees and at least that number of internal refugees.
Russia, meanwhile, wants to protect its favored-nation status in Syria. If it cannot depend on Assad staying in place, it will likely support a more appealing leader in an attempt to disarm the opposition politically. Russia prefers a follow-on Syrian regime that more or less continues the geostrategic politics of the Assad regime, but there is not much it can do to bring that outcome about. Russia would likely not be very enthusiastic about an Alawi pseudo-state in Latakia that could not ensure Russian use of its naval base at Tartus. It is probably even less enthusiastic about some kind of improbable, territorially ill-defined and warring Hizballah-Iranian-Alawi enclave in Syria between the Turkish and Lebanese borders.
here are dozens of al-Qaeda affiliate and Salafi groups in Syria today fighting the Assad regime. Once it becomes clear that the Alawi regime is not long for this world, the remaining loyalist military forces, as well as the Syrian Scientific Research Center (SSRC), which controls Syria’s chemical and biological weapons program, and the private Alawi militias (the shabiha), all will likely take the regime’s weapons and chemical and biological materials to the hills of Latakia Province. But such a task may be just too large and daunting to be completed efficiently, especially if fighting outside the gates preoccupies many Syrian regular forces and threatens SSRC staff. Any Alawi SSRC employee caught by the opposition will likely be killed. So most SSRC members will probably be quick to flee rather than finish their task of cleansing Syria of its weapons. If so, the chances that the opposition, and by default al-Qaeda, will acquire them is significant, perhaps even likely. That is one big reason why the Jordanian, Turkish, Israeli and U.S. governments are so alarmed by the trajectory of the Syrian civil war.
Al-Qaeda members and affiliates are fighting side by side today with the Free Syrian Army, assisting them physically and fueling the narrative that the civil war is sectarian. There may come a point where the Free Syrian Army will accept (or at least tolerate) al-Qaeda and Salafi groups as strategic equals, especially if al-Qaeda is successful in penetrating the Assad regime’s defenses and killing its senior leadership. At the moment, the Free Syrian Army claims no sympathy toward al-Qaeda and claims it wants nothing to do with it in a postwar Syria. Such claims, however, are a little like all promises made under duress in fluid situations, ones Lenin termed pie crusts waiting to be broken.
All of Syria’s neighbors obviously have stakes in the outcome. And each one has different interests than all the others. Iraq is rarely mentioned in this group, but it too is a neighbor and it too is deeply implicated in the outcome in Syria. The Shi‘a-dominated Maliki government in Iraq has publically called for the end of the Assad regime, but Iraq clearly fears that a radical Sunni government in Damascus would encourage Iraqi Sunnis to attack Shi‘a dominance in Baghdad. The last thing Maliki and his associates need right now is an al-Qaeda-friendly alliance among the kindred Sunni tribes that straddle the Syrian-Iraqi border. But that is most likely what they will in fact get.
Jordan, a Sunni-majoritarian state, would not be much happier with that sort of outcome. But it probably prefers any inclusive state to a shattered, partitioned and unstable Syria that would send tens of thousands more refugees into Jordan and create a politically unstable environment that would persist for years. Similarly, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, all want Assad gone and a new Sunni-dominated government to emerge. But none wants a radical jihadi state or a failed, fractured state that would host al-Qaeda or like-minded affiliates. Turkey has unique concern about an augmentation of Kurdish nationalism, which could undermine or overwhelm its careful new effort at rapprochement with its longtime Kurdish enemies.
For Israel there is no obvious happy ending in Syria. The worst outcome would be a fractured no man’s land where terrorists roam free with stocks of chemical or biological weapons. The best might be a Sunni-dominated but majority secular government that would probably still consider Israel an enemy state, but that would have too many other problems on its hands to do much about it. Alas, whatever Israel may want, it is powerless to affect the outcome, aside from using a mix of deterrence and force to protect itself against bad- and worst-case outcomes. Jerusalem has no entrée into Syrian politics.
The United States, obviously, has to take into account the perspectives of all these countries, most of which are allies of one sort of another. Its overriding aim is to see Assad go, making a serious dent to Iran’s regional diplomatic and geostrategic posture. Washington’s interest is in a government in Damascus that is hostile to Iran and Hizballah alike, that is disinterested in maintaining its legacy WMD programs, and that is at least somewhat pro-Western. If it is also interested in modernizing itself and growing economically, that opens opportunities for the United States to influence a new government. Yet with the U.S. government exercising little initiative with regard to Syria over the past two years, it may have lost much capacity to influence events in the direction it desires.
iven the lack of any effective U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, the slow arming of an internally divided opposition and the gradual bleeding of the Syrian Army, the very worst case scenario is most likely. Some day this year Assad will probably flee or be killed, and Alawi members of the SSRC, the Syrian Republican Guard and other former regime elements will retreat to Latakia and create a defensive enclave there. Armed with the best of what remains of the Syrian regime’s weapons, including chemical and biological ones, they will hunker down.
The Free Syrian Army and remnants of the Assad regime will probably fight a protracted, zero-sum conflict during which time both sides will commit thousands of atrocities as the mosaic of Syria’s spacial patterns is cleansed by death and flight. Over time, all of Syria outside of Latakia may be purged of Alawis, tiny populations of Twelver and Ismaili Shi‘a, Christian minorities and perhaps even Druze. Hizballah and Iran may try to use force to expand this rump state in Latakia as far south as the Lebanese border, so to bring about a pseudo (and heavily armed) “Hizballah-Iran-Alawi” statelet. To the extent they succeed, a new Sunni-dominated government in Damascus would inherit a shattered state, which is why they would almost certainly be determined not to let them succeed. This could well lead to a major regional war.
Alawis are already moving to Latakia and into Lebanon through the Biqa Valley, which is effectively controlled by Hizballah at the expense of the Lebanese Army. As many as 15,000 Alawis from Damascus may have moved into northern Lebanon and then turned north, back into Latakia. As many as one in 15 Syrians have been displaced by the fighting to date and have fled according to their sectarian allegiance. Armenians, Christians and Druze may have no future whatsoever in a post-Assad Syria. They may not even be welcome in Alawi Latakia.
This is where most crisis analysis, such as it is, usually stops. At the risk of some even greater degree of speculation, let us continue to ask, “what then?”
Would a new Sunni-dominated government in Damascus allow a Republic of Srpska-like state to exist, one with a sea port (Tartus) to permit military re-supply from Russia and Iran? Would the Sunni Gulf states allow a Hizballah-Iran-Alawi rump state to exist, armed to the teeth and threatening in one way or another all of Syria’s neighbors to the delight of the mullahs in Tehran? Would al-Qaeda and affiliates allow a non-radical, Sunni government to live more or less in peace?
The answer to all three of these questions, very likely, is no. That means the fighting could start up again very soon after Damascus falls to the Free Syrian Army—assuming, of course, that it does. Even if the international community is successful in creating some ceasefire and Republic of Srpska-like peace agreement amid the chaos—very unlikely though that is—it will almost certainly not be able to prevent a zero-sum fight to the death among the major players.
Perhaps Alawi chemical weapons would deter “Sunni-Syrian” incursions into the Latakia rump state. Perhaps the international community could eventually make a ceasefire work once the warring parties become too exhausted to continue. But perhaps not. If neither deterrence nor a ceasefire holds, what would discourage use of chemical or biological weapons by either side? Not much. The Alawis might also try to provoke Israel to enter the fray, and the Israelis would be faced with a dilemma: needing to defend the population without being sucked into a war they cannot influence decisively. And while all this is going on, Lebanon might collapse into a new phase of civil war, as might Iraq. Just to top things off, Kurdish efforts to create autonomy within Syria might touch off a limited Turkish military intervention in order to get some control over the outcome.
In other words, post-post-Assad Syria is likely to be even more complicated, regionally dangerous and nightmarish than what we see now. It could also lead to a resurgence of al-Qaeda power in the region at large.