The days of the totalitarian regime of Bashar Assad in Syria are
The center of gravity of the conflict is the populace’s belief
in the illegitimacy of the government and support for the opposition, despite
fear of retribution from the Assad regime. The conflict will soon move from
political to sectarian, if the Alawite-minority Assad regime does not step down
soon. Assad is fighting a losing internal conflict and may turn the conflict
into a sectarian bloodbath.
Should the regime somehow prevail (by killing
tens of thousands more), it would enjoy political support from no more than 30
percent of the population, given that Syria is 70% Sunni and only 20% Alawite,
Shi’a and Druze, and 10% Christian.
There are five likely futures for
Syria, and none of them involve Assad:
1. Assad flees and those Alawite members
of the regime who remain pledge to join and cooperate with the new
(Sunni-dominated) Free Syrian Army (FSA) government (the optimal, ideal,
Western-driven future, although sadly there is no evidence the United States is
pursuing such an outcome).
Alawite members of the Republican Guard, the
Syrian Scientific Research Center (which controls the Syrian chemical and
biological weapons program) and the private militias (the Shabiha) all agree to
take orders from the new government as long as their minority status is
protected and they have a say in the new government. The SSRC maintains control
of all WMD and cooperates with Western demands to eliminate Syrian WMD (much
like what occurred in Libya).
2. Assad resigns at the direction of
Russia, which creates a new Syrian government (a Russian-driven
future). A UN-Russian plan creates a transitional government made up of
FSA members and current regime elements, made possible and heavily influenced by
Russia, which wishes to maintain a favored-nation status with the new Syrian
government, which affords Russia special influence for pulling Assad. The United
States is largely shut out of the new government, given the perception that the
United States was indifferent to the opposition.
3. Assad flees at the
direction of Iran (an Iran-driven future). A UN plan creates a
transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, but
one that is heavily influenced behind the scenes in Syria by Iran, which wishes
to keep Syria a client state and to continue to support Lebanese Hezbollah
through Syria. The United States is largely shut out, given the perception that
the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
4. Assad flees or is
killed and leaves behind chaos (a “no one is driving” future). The FSA
takes over the country; the Alawites are purged from the new
government. There is a scramble among the FSA, al-Qaida in Syria,
Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran to secure and control Syrian chemical and biological
weapons and shape the new government. The outcome of such violence is
uncertain. There is no sympathy for the United States, given the
perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
Assad flees or is killed and Alawite members of the SSRC, the Republican Guard
and former regime elements – including thousands of private Alawite militia,
retreat to the Latakia Province and create a defensive enclave, armed with
Syrian regime weapons, perhaps including chemical and biological weapons (a
sectarian-driven future) – perhaps the most likely future now.
and remnants of the Assad regime fight a protracted, zero-sum conflict, during
which time both sides commit thousands of atrocities. The fate of Syrian
chemical and biological weapons is uncertain. Desperate Alawites may consider
transferring such weapons to al-Qaida in Syria, which likely will oppose any new
government that does not adopt Sharia, or to criminal elements that make trouble
for the new Sunni-dominated FSA government.
The West has no choice but to
involve itself in Syria’s future. President Obama’s passivity only allows Russia
and Iran to better influence the ultimate outcome and allies al-Qaida in Syria
with the opposition. With no US leadership, the war may degenerate into a human
rights nightmare, with a desperate Alawite insurgency armed with chemical and
In order to accrue necessary political capital with
the incoming regime and to forestall Russian or Iranian influence over the new
Syrian government, the United States ought to consider military action, such as
a stand-off air suppression campaign or a no-fly zone, to signal American
support to the Free Syrian Army and its goals. (Such action alone might push
Assad to flee.) Neutrality risks the appearance of indifference to the plight of
the people of Syria. Military involvement of some kind is imperative to accrue
some credibility and influence over a post-Assad Syria.
United States ought to signal to the Alawites that once (and only once) Assad
flees, they would become a protected minority, roughly analogous to Bosnian
Serbs in Bosnia, and ideally part of the new, non-sectarian government; and thus
that the quick and early end of the Assad regime is ultimately in the interests
of all Syrian religious minorities, Alawites, Shi’ites, Christians, Druze and
Syria is intractably hostile to the West; a client state to Iran;
a WMD proliferator; a threat to Israel; and a brutal dictatorship. Iran is
desperate to keep the Assad regime for all these reasons.
No regime that
follows the current regime can be worse, though it may not be much better in the
The United States used to be the champion of the oppressed,
clever in perceiving and implementing a political solution and magnanimous in
the end state. President Obama seems arrested by policy uncertainty and blind to
the reality that he has to support the opposition or he will be perceived as
supporting the regime.
The writer is a lecturer at the Center for
Advanced Governmental Studies, Johns Hopkins University.