What next in Syria? 4 scenarios

The decision to send the army into Deraa marked a new stage in Syria’s uprising. Having seen that the few superficial changes and reforms offered did not placate demonstrators, the Baath regime have resorted to blunt force to batter the opposition into submission, echoing the Iranian crushing of the Green movement in 2009 more than Hama in 1982 thus far. Some excellent analysis has been written recently, especially this from Fawaz Gerges. It is still far from clear where things are going in Syria at the moment – made even more difficult by the restrictions placed on journalists. However, I thought I’d take the opportunity to work out a few possible scenarios of what might lie ahead. These are clearly not the only possible paths, but working through the possibilities gives a clearer sense of what might happen.

1. The regime successfully crushes the uprising

After the brutality seen in Deraa, the fear barrier returns and all but a handful of protestors are dissuaded from returning to the streets in other towns and cities. The arrest of key figures and organisers who have been leading demonstrations takes its toll on the grass-roots movement and over several weeks of weaker and weaker Friday protests the momentum withers away. Those who do dare to protest return to the tens and hundreds and are easily picked off by security services, newly equipped with riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. What follows is a reinvention of Syria as an even tighter police state, rather like it was immediately after Hama in the 1980s, where fear dominates.

However, as a consequence of the repression, the West treats Syria as a pariah and sanctions its economy and boycotts it diplomatically. While it’s already weak economy is propped up by grants and aid from the Gulf states and Iran – the only regimes that will deal with Syria – its economy cannot possibly sustain the police state apparatus needed to keep people in line. The middle classes, who had held back from turning on the regime in 2011, lose faith in the regime’s ability to deliver the prosperity it expects. The regime also lacks the funds to co-opt potentially rebellious elements into the establishment. It is only a matter of time before demonstrators are again emboldened to take to the streets once more, forcing the regime to either reform or quit.

Bottom line: This will only delay the regime’s downfall unless they can find ways of dramatically boosting the economy to satisfy the middle classes.

2. The regime voluntarily offers major concessions after repression fails to quell the protests

After Deraa is violently crushed, solidarity uprisings take place in Banyas, Homs and several other cities across Syria including, for the first time, Aleppo and central Damascus. For the first time several army units refuse orders to fire on protestors. Following intense international pressure, particularly from Turkey, President Assad recognizes that the level of repression needed to crush the whole country is too great and looks to offer major concessions. He offers his cousin, Rami Maklouf, as the sacrificial lamb who he packs off to Dubai, stripping him of his Syrian assets. He resists a similar approach to his brother, Maher, but quietly relieves him of command of the Republican guard. The commanders in charge of the Deraa and Homs crackdowns are brought to trial and scapegoated, while free elections are offered immediately. This is accompanied by dialogue with the various opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who are invited to return to form a loyal opposition. Though many in the opposition are skeptical, a critical number are willing to give these genuine reforms a chance, especially after the much-hated Makhlouf is exiled and people believe that Bashar is serious.

However, even after these concessions are made, demonstrators no longer trust Bashar given the violence of previous months and demand he offers new presidential elections, promising not to stand himself. Months of wrangling follow, with Assad determined to gain immunity from prosecution for him and his family from the ICC warrant that has just been issued before he eventually agrees to step down.

Bottom Line: After so much violence already it is questionable if Assad can offer anything other than his resignation and the complete destruction of the Baath state that they would accept. This would cost him and his family everything – possibly even their lives if they go to trial (a la Saddam) – and it is hard to see how he would ever agree to it.

3. The opposition takes up arms: civil conflict

The prospect of civil war has been thrown around by commentators a lot without necessarily explaining what this would actually look like. The opposition would need to take up arms for a civil war to begin, until then it would just be a repressive regime massacring its unarmed population. While small arms would be easy to come by through the many smuggling routes through Syria (via Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan), this would be no match for the Syrian army that could crush such a modestly armed opposition quite easily. Moreover, were the opposition to take up arms, this would no doubt galvanise any waverers in the army who were having doubts about shooting unarmed civilians. Yet why would the opposition take up arms? They know they could never get well enough armed to defeat the armed forces militarily, and fighting would undermine much international and domestic support. An armed clash would attract Salafis and Islamist fighters from abroad, mostly Iraq, Saudi and Lebanon, and would probably gain funding from individuals in Saudi Arabia. Yet such a religious conflict would alienate the large secular elements of Syrian society, which might end up supporting the government. It would therefore seem highly unwise for the opposition to throw away its credibility and support for an unwinnable fight against the military.

That might change however if we see substantial defections from the military to the opposition side. If we take it for granted that certain elements of the security services, Alawi officers and the Republican guard, will stay loyal to the regime to the end, individual junior officers and soldiers may yet be willing to defect. Were it to take place, this would provide the opposition with a serious fighting force and could persuade their leaders to risk launching a civil conflict. However, even this would simply redress the balance and is unlikely to tip in favour of opposition victory. Prolonged civil war and stalemate is the best they could hope for. Moreover, despite some hopeful signs seen by opposition writer in exile,Ammar Abdulhamid, there seems little widespread signs of this happening.

Bottom line: Protracted civil war that descends into sectarianism under the influence of foreign Islamists, similar to Iraq or Lebanon, or alternatively an armed uprising quickly crushed by government.

4. The opposition overthrows the regime

This is perhaps the most optimistic and least likely possibility, and incorporates elements of the other scenarios. In order for the regime to be toppled a lot needs to happen that has not yet taken place. Not only do the protestors need to rally after the attacks on Deraa and Douma, they need to increase their number, presence and persistence. Syria needs to have the kind of mass demonstrations in the hundred thousands seen in Egypt and Tunisia that last for days, not just on Fridays, and they need to bring the major cities of Aleppo and Damascus to a standstill. Such demonstrations could persuade the weaker elements of the ruling coalition, the business leaders and the least loyal sections of the army, that ongoing repression is not sustainable indefinitely. This is the next change needed: key elements of the security services and the government need to defect to the opposition. At the moment, the regime looks tight at the top, with few signs that anyone will waiver, which allows it to batter down the hatches in the short-term. The prospect of international sanctions might also encourage the business class to defect if they believe that the regime faces a long period of international economic isolation that could serious damage their long-term prosperity.

Defections might also provide the opposition with leading figures that bridge the divide to persuade others, particularly from the minority sects (the Alawis and Christians) that an opposition government would not be led by sectarian Sunnis seeking vengeance on those who backed the Baathists.   Were all these things to take place, the regime might start to crumble rather like Qaddaffis appeared to be doing in the early days of the Libyan unrest. This might leave a rump regime of the Assads and their few Alawi security force loyalists who would see their game is up.

Bottom line: It is a very long way for the opposition to go to reach this point, and it relies on a huge amount of bravery on behalf of the Syrian people in the face of repression. It also depends on defections that seem unlikely right now. This is what most outsiders want to see, but it also appears the furthest from sight.

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One thought on “What next in Syria? 4 scenarios

  1. Chris, you outline some interesting possible scenarios. However, (perhaps wisely) you don’t explicitly state which you think is most likely. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the probable outcome.

    The harsh lesson of the Arab Spring, like many other abortive uprisings throughout history, seems to me a relatively straightforward one: regime survival is directly correlated to the ability to unleash extreme violence. Assuming Assad does so, it would seem likely that freedom for Syria will remain just as elusive as ever.

    More generally, what do you think the medium term implications of the Arab Spring will be for the region as a whole? For all the sound and the fury, we’ve had 2 fairly standard (if unexpected) military coups in Tunisia and Egypt, another one looking likely in Yemen, brutal repression in Bahrain and Syria, and a typically tragicomic civil war in Libya. Forgive my cynicism, but at the moment it’s not exactly 1989 redux.

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