Nightmare Scenarios for a Post-Assad Middle East

Nobody's expecting a happy ending any time soon to Syria's civil war. Here are just five things that could go badly wrong when the Assad regime falls

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Syrian rebels prepare to advance into the Salaheddin district in the northern city of Aleppo to fight against forces loyal to the government , Aug. 4, 2012.

2. Jihadists Fill the Post-Assad Vacuum

The presence of an al-Qaeda-inspired element in the Syrian rebellion has long been established — U.S. intelligence concluded that some of the spectacular suicide bombings early on in Damascus were the work of such groups. And in response to a question in the German Parliament last week, it was revealed that Germany’s intelligence service estimates that about 90 bombings in Syria over the past six months were the work of “organizations that are close to al-Qaeda or jihadist groups.” Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in February called on supporters in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq to join the fight against Assad, and a number seem to have responded, with opportunities expanding as the Syrian state frays at the edges. Last weekend, AFP reported that a border crossing near Turkey had been taken over by some 150 foreign fighters proclaiming themselves loyal to al-Qaeda.

Libya and Yemen are recent examples of how the collapse of an authoritarian political order presents opportunities for jihadists to revive their fortunes, and they’ll try to do the same in Syria. They’re unlikely to take control of the rebellion, if the Iraqi experience is any example. By a number of accounts from on the ground, Sunni communities that have rebelled against the regime have resisted efforts by more ideologically extreme foreign fighters to impose themselves. Syria has a well-established national Islamist tradition of its own that is outside of al-Qaeda and unlikely to be drawn into that orbit — more akin to the mainstream Sunni insurgency in neighboring Iraq, with which the Sunni tribes of southeastern Syria are well integrated. Today the names, slogans and pronouncements of even many of the fighting units operating under the rubric of the Free Syrian Army appear to have an Islamist, and increasingly sectarian, hue.

(MORE: As Syria Teeters, So Do Decades-Old Assumptions About the Middle East)

Even if foreign fighters fail to gain traction, the mainstream Sunni insurgency will likely have a strong Islamist component, which history suggests will grow rather than ebb as long as the fighting persists.

The U.S. has deployed the CIA to southern Turkey to vet rebel groups receiving outside military assistance, hoping to favor those more palatable to Western preferences. The Administration insists it is not providing weapons to Syrian rebels, but it is helping with intelligence and other military-support functions. The arming and funding of the rebels is being undertaken primarily by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. But given the regional cold war that all three are engaged in to greater or lesser extents against Iranian allies across the region, those powers may not share the extent of Washington’s concern to avoid empowering sectarian Islamist groups. The Saudis have backed Sunni radicals in Lebanon and elsewhere, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the key backers of the Sunni-led political opposition to Iraq’s Iran-backed Shi’ite government. Moreover, the U.S. experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s should provide ample warning of how little influence Washington buys through the provision of weapons to insurgent groups.

Even in the best-case scenario, the fall of Assad will likely boost Sunni radicals in neighboring countries. Indeed, Lebanon’s Salafists have already been spurred into action, and a similar effect may be seen in Iraq. The wave of bombings in Baghdad and beyond on Monday may be a portent of some Iraqi Sunni insurgents, spurred by events in Syria, to try and reverse their defeat in that country’s civil war. And there’s no doubt that Lebanese Sunni groups will see Assad’s ouster as critically weakening Hizballah and therefore as an opportunity to reverse their own defeat at its hands. The instability that follows Assad’s fall will be felt far beyond Syria’s borders.

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