SENSibility: This is Not the Endgame in Syria

Vancouver, August 15 2012. As the Syrian Tragedy continues to unfold in bloody slow motion, there is much talk of entering an “endgame” phase of the Syrian Civil War. According to this conventional wisdom, the Assad regime is near its end as the rebels grow stronger, international support dwindles, and the government hemorrhages senior officials and military personnel. This conventional wisdom may or may not be true (it is probably true) but make no mistake, the fall of the Assad regime or the removal of Assad himself from power is not the endgame in Syria. It is only the beginning.

What comes after Assad is the real endgame, and the possible scenarios are largely unattractive (at least, if you believe in things like peace, order and good government, which you probably do if you are reading this). The very best that can be hoped for is a coalition government composed of representatives of the main demographic groups in Syria, the key leaders of the various rebel groups, and a fair smattering of economic, technocratic, and artistic elites (it never hurts to have some painters and literary figures in government). This coalition would hopefully be backed by  a unified group of great powers and regional states, and would govern with some expectation that it be responsible to the people through elections at some future date. It sounds hopeful.

It is also an illusion. Such a government might be formed by external powers knocking heads together, and it might even be capable of agreement on some basic policies for a while, but it would eventually become dysfunctional due to the deep divisions in Syrian society, now exacerbated by the animosities accumulated in the recent fighting. It is a gigantic leap of faith to expect the US, the European powers, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China to agree on the fundamentals of a new Syrian regime, let alone refrain from supporting their own allies and interests in the country.

Iraq provides us with an illustration of the second best option for the real endgame in Syria. In Iraq, the government is paralyzed in a never-ending cycle of power struggles between political factions, powerful families and interests, and procedural wrangling. But Iraq is also mostly peaceful, with no signs that large scale civil war is imminent. I suspect many international decision-makers would gratefully accept this future for Syria right now.

This is because the remaining options are exceedingly unpleasant (and also more likely). One possibility is the Alawite regime becomes ever more weakened, but retains enough resources and support to retain control of some key urban areas, economic assets, and foreign support. This would allow the regime to maintain a functional military sufficient to protect the Alawite minority but unable to restore control over the country. The rebel movements would grow stronger, buttressed by international support (perhaps even limited intervention) and improved access to resources, and therefore be able to sustain larger and more capable militias. In this scenario, Syria begins to look like Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. Another possibility is the Alawite regime collapses entirely, much like the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi. But then what? The rebels are deeply divided and agree on little beyond the removal of the Alawite government. The presence of politically and ideologically divided factions, each with their own armed militias and external support, is another recipe for civil war.

It may turn out differently. But what we are witnessing in Syria is not yet the endgame. That is still to come, and the best we can hope for looks uninspiring and unlikely. The worst we might expect looks very bloody and increasingly plausible.

Allen Sens is a Political Science professor at UBC.

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