Timidity causes Syrian barbarity

There are five likely futures for Syria, and none of them involve Assad, the West has no choice but to involve itself in Syria’s future.

October 23, 2012 22:44
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (R). (photo credit: Sana / Reuters)


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The days of the totalitarian regime of Bashar Assad in Syria are numbered.

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.

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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.

5. 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.

The FSA 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 biological weapons.

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.

Similarly, the 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 Kurds.

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 near term.

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.

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