I am a pessimist about Syria’s future because the regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end. The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and appathetic, is now politicized, mobilized, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria.
It is hard to see any soft landing for the regime or the people. It is also hard to see how the regime will be brought down short of economic collapse and its inability to pay wages, which would lead to wider social defections and a possible splitting of the military, as happened in Lebanon and Libya. If the military splits, both sides would have ample firepower to do real damage. Large sections of Syria could fall out of state control. Regions not divided by sect could remain fairly quite and stable for a time if there is a unified political leadership to step into the vacuum. Otherwise competing parties will develop militias as happened in Iraq and Lebanon.
No foreign power will feel compelled to step in to protect the people or stop the fighting because no one will be responsible for “losing Syria.” Syria is a political orphan today.
The army has split in Syria once before. This happened in Feb 1954 at the end of Adib Shishakli’s rule. The army divided along geographic lines. The divisions in the North went with the opposition centered on the People’s Party based in Homs and Aleppo. The South stood by Shishakli. Fortunately, General Shishakli decided to leave the country and flew off to Saudi Arabia, helped by the US. He had a change of mind in mid air but the US prevented his return. Washington convinced Lebanon to refuse his jet landing rights. After a brief spell in Arabia, Shishakli migrated to Brazil, where a relative of a Druze man, for whose death Shishakli was responsible, assassinated him.
Syria’s great weakness is it lack of unity. This is why the Assad household has been able to rule for so long. Hafiz al-Assad was able to bring stability to Syria after 20 years of coups and political chaos by reverting to the use of traditional loyalties. He ended Syria’s period as a banana republic by placing his brother in charge of protecting the presidency and using tribal and sectarian loyalties to coup-proof the regime. Alawite faithful were carefully recruited to all the sensitive security positions in the Mukhabarat and military. The Sunni elite was grateful for the stability and was further brought in through the crafty use of graft and patronage. Rami Makhlouf is corrupt, but he is also the fixer for the Sunni merchant class. The way he brought the Sham Holding Company in to the circle of regime loyalists was a classic use of privilege and muscle to glue the elite families of Syria to the regime. They have made millions my accepting an offer that they could not refuse.
The Syrian opposition has always been divided between Arab nationalists, Islamist currents, liberals, and all those who disprove of the regime but are too conservative to take part in active opposition. Then there are the sectarian communities and the Kurds, class divisions, and the urban-rural split, not to mention the traditional rivalry between Damascus and Aleppo. The reason that the Assads have been so successful for so long is largely due to the inability of Syrians to unite around a common platform and national identity. The oppositions lack of unity does not augur well for a post Assad future, especially as the death toll mounts and the desire for revenge grows.
Sunni Syrians frequently reassure me that Syria is different than Iraq or Lebanon. They insist that Syrians have lived together in harmony throughout most of their history and will not kill each other in the future, as their Lebanese and Iraqi cousins have done. I am less sanguine about such Syrian exceptionalism. I have been wrong enough times to make mentioning this important. The ability of the opposition to keep the protesters on message and away from sectarian slogans has been impressive. It could mean that the younger generation will find unity where their fathers did not. Also, Syrian minorities were certain that they faced massacre in 1946 when the French quite Syria. The French and British archives are filled with such warnings as the minority leaders wrung their hands. Minorities were not killed. The Druze and Alawites suffered a painful loss of political autonomy and privilege in their regions, but did not suffer physically. No revenge was taken on them under the banner of being collaborators as happened to the Assyrians in Iraq when some 3,000 were massacred in 1933. Christians were not ethnically cleansed as happened in Turkey when Ataturk won against the Greeks.
As for how Middle East alliances might reshape themselves should Syria implode or become a weak state, the best guide is Patrick Seale’s original masterpiece, “The Struggle for Syria“. During the 1950s and 1960s, Syria had an extremely weak state and was subject to frequent coups and outside meddling, not unlike Lebanon today. A grand tug-of-war ensued between Iraq and Egypt for control of Syria. It ended after the failed British and Iraq inspired coup of 1956. This signified the last serious attempt to unite Iraq and Syria. Subsequently, the US stepped in to overthrow the Syrian government in 1957. This also failed, but it destabilized Syria enough to open the way for the victory of the pan-Arabists and Syria lurch toward Egypt and the USSE. The formation of the United Arab Republic in January 1958 was the low point of Syrian independence. Only when the Asads took over Syria, did it regain an independent foreign policy that was not subject to the pull of regional actors and machinations of the Superpowers.
Today, the most powerful states in the region are Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. They will fight over Syria. Iraq is too weak today, but it will be a natural contestant when it establishes its state structures on a firmer footing. Kurdistan may find it impossible to resist the lure of Syria’s Kurds who will want to unite with it. Egypt is also likely to remain a minor actor in the geo-strategic tug-of-war until it gets its political and economic feet back under it. Israel will also be fishing in Syria’s troubled waters. Tel Aviv will be most interested in taking out Hizbullah and shepherding Lebanon toward a peace agreement with it.
The wave of refugees that are likely to flow out of Syria will be significant. I have already had three Syrian students call me in the last several days asking for references as they apply for refugee status here in the States. This is just the beginning if the regime begins to crack.
I have had many journalists who have asked me to paint a happy outcome of the present instability. I have struggled to come up with a non-violent scenario but don’t easily come up with one. Several businessmen have suggested that they are prepared for Syria to go through six months or a year of turmoil and even civil war to “get rid of this group.” Instability could be that short. Syrians have learned to live with each other and are deeply nationalistic, but instability brings out sectarian loyalties. Everyone in Syria is trying not to talk about religion today, by the fear is that sectarianism becomes ever more important as insecurity and fears grow.