Bracing for an Uncertain Future in Syria

  • Read “Bracing for an Uncertain Future in Syria,” a Commentary by CSIS Visiting Fellow Aram Nerguizian.
    Jun 20, 2012

    As former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s peace plan struggles to make headway, there are few good options to deal with what are likely to be years of unrest and socioeconomic and political instability. The Annan plan called for a Syrian-led political process under UN supervision to bring about a cessation of armed violence across the country. It also called for dialogue between opposition forces and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Neither the regime nor opposition forces have truly pushed for a verifiable cessation of hostilities.

    On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico, U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed that there was still an urgent need for a diplomatic solution to the crisis and a true commitment to put an end to the violence on the ground. While the growing humanitarian cost of the crisis is tragic, it is only one part of what has been shaping up to be an intractable struggle for power. All of the alternatives to Annan’s plan—from arming opposition forces to U.S.-led armed intervention—would create more problems than they would solve, running the risk of a disastrous backfire. Accordingly, there is a need for a realistic assessment of the scale of local, regional, and international competition over Syria, as well as the possible trajectories the Syrian crisis may take.

    Syria’s Continuing Downward Spiral

    More than a year of upheaval has cost thousands of Syrian lives in the face of a brutal government crackdown. The Assad regime squandered several opportunities for reform to settle the crisis, and it did little to address the socioeconomic and political grievances of protestors in a country that has struggled with supporting the interests of its corporatist ruling elite, while trying to liberalize a fragile national economy.

    Unlike past Arab League–sponsored efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, Annan’s joint UN and Arab League initiative enjoys the support of the entire Security Council—including Russia and China, who remain deeply averse to intervention in Syria. The Annan plan also avoids calls for Assad to relinquish power and instead highlights the need for dialogue between the regime and opposition forces. Unfortunately, the Assad regime has done little to bolster the Annan plan’s chances for success. Instead it has pursued a security response that, while effective at undermining the armed opposition, has done nothing to roll back and address the cumulative effects of more than a year of protests and calls for regime change.

    Meanwhile, opposition forces inside and outside Syria remain divided about how to end the crisis and whether or not to engage the regime. The Syrian National Council (SNC) and the armed militias operating under the loose auspices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have rejected any kind of dialogue with Assad amid growing calls for a military solution. Other groups, including the Syria-based National Coordinating Council (NCC), are more flexible. That the militarization of anti-regime forces has come at the expense of more moderate opposition forces also serves to make the task more daunting. More militant and Islamist forces are playing an increasingly critical yet uncertain role in the crisis. Meanwhile, persistent divisions continue to complicate any effort that hopes to defuse the crisis through dialogue.

    Escalating measures undertaken by both the regime and its opponents have done little to dampen the crisis in Syria. On the one hand, the Assad regime’s response to both the opposition and the Annan plan is consistent with the “lessons learned” from authoritarian failures in other regional states, such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. On the other hand, Syria’s internal and external opposition forces have learned some analogous lessons—both good and bad—from the successes and failures of counter-regime forces across the region. However, they have also increasingly turned to an armed insurgency targeting the security apparatus and regime institutions while digging in to oust Assad. Despite both pro- and anti-regime forces’ hardening positions, neither the regime nor its opponents are likely to bring an end to the crisis in the short term.

    Mapping Regional Competition over Syria

    While Syria’s internal unrest is rooted in underlying socioeconomics, political representation, governance, and other pressures, the crisis has not evolved in a vacuum, and it increasingly reflects the interests of competing regional actors willing to support competing factions in Syria.

    At the regional level, the Syrian crisis remains sensitive to competition between the predominantly Sunni Gulf monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Shi’a Iran. The GCC—led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar—is currently providing financial and military support to mostly Sunni opposition forces inside Syria. This is driven by a desire to weaken the Assad regime, Iran’s sole Arab state partner and a key way station for Iranian support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another factor is appeasing populations that increasingly see events in Syria through the lens of Sunni-Shi’a regional competition. A third factor is a unique opportunity to shape the regional balance of power at a time when the three traditional pillars of inter-Arab politics—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are either unstable or unable to shape regional events.

    Increased levels of involvement in Syria’s internal dynamics are not unique to the Gulf states. For Iran, the risks of not tackling Syrian instability could include at least a partial loss of its ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict or to provide support via Syria to militant Palestinians and Iran’s Shi’a allies in Lebanon. Iran is providing assistance to the Assad regime as it tries to suppress an insurgency that is enjoying growing levels of external support.

    Israel and Turkey also have an interest in how events in Syria unfold. Syria under Ba’ath rule has been a largely predictable factor in Israel’s national security calculus; many in Israel continue to doubt the prospects for a stable transition and view change in Syria as the latest chapter of an increasingly negative cycle of regional unrest. Meanwhile, there is no basis on which to make the argument that a post-Assad Syria will be politically stable, make peace with Israel, renounce claims to the Golan Heights, or stop providing assistance to militant Palestinian elements or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    Where Israel has done little beyond expressing growing concern at the risks of Syrian instability, Turkey has become one of the Assad regime’s core regional opponents and home to both peaceful and armed opposition to the ruling Alawite-led regime. One reason for Turkey’s policy shift is strong Arab and predominantly Sunni views surrounding events in Syria. Another is to try to pivot Turkey at a time when its foreign policy appears to have gone from “zero problems” to “problems on every border.” While Turkey has been reluctant to escalate too far beyond rhetoric due to its own internal pressures from political opposition groups and the country’s ethnic minorities, there is anecdotal evidence that an important portion of logistical, military, and financial support to the insurgency continues to cross Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

    Mapping International Competition over Syria

    A similarly complex web of interests in Syria exists at the international level. For the United State, a growing insurgency in Syria and the potential for an end to Ba’ath rule seem to hold the promise of achieving the core foreign policy outcomes that all of the competing schools of U.S. policy toward Syria aspire to achieve: breaking the three-decade-old Iran-Syria axis and denying Tehran the means to project power and influence in the Levant. However, protests and instability with no clear end state in Syria and no clear alternative to Assad to ensure stability do little to satisfy U.S. efforts to safeguard regional stability. European states, led by France and the United Kingdom, also hold out hope that change in Damascus can lead to change in the balance of power in the Levant. Whereas the United States has until recently been reluctant to give Syrian opposition groups more than rhetorical support, European states have at times been among the most critical of Assad and keen to support opposition forces in the country.

    At the other end of the international spectrum, Russia and China have signaled that intervention in Syria is a foreign policy red line. Russian interests are driven by a need to balance against the United States and the West in a region where Moscow faces declining influence. Another factor is Russia’s intent to secure the viability of a key regional ally that provides Moscow with the potential to project naval power and foreign policy influence in the Mediterranean. China has similar concerns regarding competition with the United States, as well as a desire to avoid setting international precedents that could be a source of instability at home. Together, Russia and China have and are likely to continue blocking any international action that leaves openings for intervention such as that seen in Libya. Unlike China, however, Russia is far more actively engaged in buttressing the Assad regime, potentially through continued arms and technology transfers. Further binding action on Syria will be difficult without taking into account Russia’s foreign policy interests.

    The Effects of Competition on Resolving the Conflict

    With regional and international actors supporting competing local forces vying for power in Syria, the pace and scale of external involvement serve to complicate efforts like the Annan plan to bring events in Syria under control.

    While the Annan plan remains one of the best options for a diplomatic solution in Syria, it is a strategy that has been struggling to gain real traction. Pro- and anti-Assad forces in and outside of Syria were slow to support it, let alone actively endorse it. This is partly due to the “winner take all” approach of Syria’s competing political forces, forces that refuse to make any concessions for fear of showing weakness. The peace effort also remains at the mercy of regional and international competition. How much pressure the Assad regime and its opponents feel to abide by the Annan plan reflects, at least in part, the extent to which their warring external patrons are willing to push for a resolution. So far, regional and international actors on either side of the divide have yet to put their full weight behind the Annan plan.

    Another key effect of regional and international competition has been to further polarize an already divided international community when it comes to Syria. An example of this is the Friends of Syria conference that took place in parallel to the announcement of the Annan plan in February 2012. While the Annan plan was viewed by Syria’s competing forces as an uneasy and potentially painful compromise for peace, the Friends of Syria conference was far more supportive of outright regime change and offered few incentives for Assad or his external allies to engage the forum seriously. In particular Russia, China, and Iran elected not to take part due to the perception that the group was created at least partially to discuss ways to provide financial and military support to the Syrian opposition.

    A further example of an effort to resolve the conflict that may divide more than unite is the Syria contact group currently being proposed by Russia with the support of Kofi Annan himself. Given successive calls for Assad’s ouster, Russia finds itself in a unique position in terms of continued direct access to the Ba’ath ruling structure in Damascus, access that it hopes to leverage to bolster its regional role and to ensure continuity in Russia’s bid to maintain access to the Mediterranean. Where the Friends of Syria group earned the scorn of Assad’s backers, the Syria contact group may elicit strong opposition from the United States and other Western nations because of the possibility that Iran may be invited to take part as one of a number of countries with influence in Syria.

    If there is a lesson from the past, it is that all the competing outside powers need to be extremely cautious about the assumption that they can change the regime in Syria in any predictable or stable way, given that it is a nation with no coherent opposition and no practical democratic experience. For better or worse, actors that include China, the European Union, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States have enormous influence in shaping the trajectory of events in Syria. However, no single player or select group of players is likely to determine a stable final outcome.

    Scenarios for a Volatile Future

    Despite these enormous complexities, there continues to be a heated debate about whether or not direct military intervention in Syria is avoidable. What is likely is that Syria will experience deep instability for years to come, regardless of whether or not Assad stays in power and irrespective of any potential external intervention. Accordingly, there is a need to map out the potential trajectories the Syria crisis may take, trajectories that can impact or be impacted by the strategies of competing local actors and their regional and international allies.

    The first scenario would center on the institutionalization of sectarian politics in Syria through a loose confederal power-sharing arrangement. Prior to instability in 2011 and 2012, Syrians prided themselves on being above the communal politics of their similarly diverse post-Ottoman neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq. However, more than a year of bloody unrest coupled with deepening sectarian dividing lines make it highly unlikely that Syria’s Sunni majority will accept going back to a power structure that institutionalizes de facto Alawite control. By the same token, Syria’s Alawites and other minority groups will refuse to give up power in ways that would relegate them once more to the bottom of the political food chain in Syria. Agreeing on a communal power-sharing model may be one answer to stave off long-term communal conflict, but history and similar experiences in Lebanon and Iraq point to the complexities and inherent instability of institutionalizing sectarianism. What is certain is that such an outcome has a low probability of success in the absence of strong internal, regional, and international support.

    A second scenario Syria might face is protracted civil war. Not unlike the decade-long conflict in Algeria, the Assad regime may find the means to sustain military superiority over the insurgency. But that will do little to either address underlying popular grievances or prevent the opposition from metastasizing further as the crisis persists. External actors such as Russia and Iran—but also potentially Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other nations—are likely to provide more financial and military support to their respective clients in Syria. There is no clear end state for this model. One side may ultimately win, but a more likely outcome is the further decaying of political and civil life in a country with only limited experience in terms of postindependence politics and institution building, as was the case in Algeria and Lebanon.

    A third scenario for Syria would entail communal separation or outright secession by the ruling Alawite sect. So far, the Syrian opposition has failed to present a true challenge to the Assad regime’s ability to maintain relative control over the country. However, should Assad fail to hold onto large swaths of Syrian territory or effective command and control—perhaps as a result of military intervention—his Alawite sect, as well as other smaller communities, may opt to consolidate their position in parts of the country they can hold on to effectively, specifically the Mediterranean coastline and the community’s ancestral towns and villages in the Nusayri mountains in the northwest of the country. Independence for Kosovo in 2008 and South Sudan in 2011 set important precedents for self-determination in the twenty-first century. Syria’s Alawites have experienced autonomy—albeit short-lived—during the 1920s under the French mandate. Another driver toward autonomy may be what happens to minorities when they lose power in the Levant, specifically the recent loss of Sunni control in Iraq and the downgrading of the Christian Maronite community in postwar Lebanon. Unlike in those countries, Syria’s military remains largely Alawite dominated and could serve as a bulwark to defend discrete communal interests. This model also presents significant challenges, not the least of which would be the prospects of ethnic cleansing in Syria and the potential creation of a landlocked and resource-poor rump state with a large Sunni population.

    None of these scenarios is optimal or stable. However, that these are the three most realistic outcomes is a testament to the scale of the tragedy of Syria. The crisis has gone well beyond simple notions of good and evil tied to Assad’s brutal rule. The postcolonial Syrian national experiment is coming apart, and there is very little anyone can do to reverse the process. Short of letting events play out through a cycle of violence or intervening without a solution to stabilize the future, external forces may have little choice but to pursue strategies that address Syria’s increasingly communal politics. The alternatives could be civil conflict and cantonization.

    Syrian Wildcards

    Beyond potential scenarios for Syria’s future, there are key wildcards that affect the calculus of external actors and how the crisis may or may not deepen in unpredictable ways.

    Syria has among the most extensive holdings of chemical weapons in the Middle East. Many have expressed concern that these weapons could somehow end up in the hands of nonstate actors that are hostile to the United States, Israel, and other regional allies. Given the current balance of power between the Syrian Armed Forces and the insurgents, military intervention could be the only way to shift the internal balance of power in Syria away from Assad in the short term. However, intervention could also degrade and break down the Syrian military in ways that could undermine current safeguards on Syria’s chemical weapons holdings. The same uncertainties largely hold true of Syria’s extensive holdings of man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADs), ship- and shore-mounted antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and its extensive holdings of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

    Another dimension that matters is Syria’s effects on regional stability. Like Iraq, instability and change in Syria would have significant consequences for the regional balance of power in the Levant and the stability of states like Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Northern Lebanon has become especially unstable, with potential implications for national stability and calm along the UN line of demarcation with Israel. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan—a country that can scarcely avoid pressure from Syrian instability—has become the latest regional leader to warn in an interview with Al Hayat that intervening militarily in Syria would risk the “total breakdown in regional security.”

    Beyond the immediate Levant, there are real risks for key U.S. allies in the GCC. Providing increasing levels of financial and military support to the Syrian opposition risks far more dangerous and less predictable Syrian and Iranian responses should Iran elect to confront the GCC states in the Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz. So far, Iran has avoided targeting GCC states directly, but that could change if the crisis surrounding Syria deepens further.

    Tactical versus strategic approaches to Syria are another important wildcard. The former has defined far too much of the Gulf approach to the Syrian crisis with only limited focus on mapping out a more sustainable and stable future. This is driven at least in part by the conviction that so long as Assad is out of power, whatever emerges next is likely to be Sunni dominated with the potential to be co-opted along communal lines. By contrast, while the U.S. policy community continues to debate the pros and cons of deeper involvement in Syria, the broader U.S. approach remains far more focused on trying to secure a viable strategic outcome that promotes regional stability, as opposed to the promises of short-term tactical gains in Damascus.

    No Good Options for Syria’s “Arab Decade”

    No amount of repression will reverse the fractures in Syrian society. Moreover, migrations, lasting memories of violence, national economic decline, and isolation will all challenge any regime in Damascus for years to come, as will the hostility of neighboring Sunni Arab states—a problem that Syria’s increasingly sectarian crisis is scarcely going to ease.

    Instability in Syria is also a problem that will not go away with the departure of Assad and his inner circle or through military intervention. The underlying grievances tied to economic performance, opportunities for socioeconomic advancement, and hopes for better governance are such that any regime in Damascus will have to come to terms with the fact that Syria faces years, if not decades, of instability.

    While some of the internal, regional, and international dynamics in Syria can be isolated, the crisis in Syria remains closely linked to Western and Arab Gulf competition with Iran. Beyond the regional balance of power is the reality that a deepening crisis in Syria straddles broader regional Sunni-Shi’a fault lines, as well as the Kurdish issue and the full range of sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Iraq. Syria is central now to all these divisions, which have grown to be nearly intractable and pose real challenges for a Middle East caught in a cycle of spiraling conflict.

    As none of the paths to a diplomatic solution in Syria are either easy or optimal to all players at once, a UN-brokered peace process that enjoys the broadest possible level of internal and external support continues to be the best available option in the face of heightening violence and instability.

    Aram Nerguizian is a visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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