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.

4. Syria Breaks Up

Given the sectarian lines on which Syria’s power struggle is being waged, it’s widely assumed that the regime won’t simply shatter into smithereens when the rebels arrive at the gates of Assad’s home. Instead, it’s assumed that those fighting to keep Assad in power will, when forced by overwhelming odds to do so, retreat to more defensible lines from which they can protect themselves and their core communities. It’s been widely noted that Alawites are moving in large numbers to their coastal heartland and that the pattern of communal violence in Sunni villages and towns that abut it suggest a process of ethnic cleansing to prepare the way. An Alawite coastal ministate that folds in the port cities of Latakia and Tartus, home to the Russian navy’s key warmwater port, may not be viable in the long run, but that doesn’t mean the regime’s core won’t try for one. Even before that, though, a scenario could emerge in which rival armed formations control adjacent territories, as occurred in Lebanon during its 17-year civil war and during Iraq’s civil war in 2006.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

None of those scenarios are sustainable outcomes, of course, but they could map the outlines of a next phase of warfare after Assad loses control of the Syrian state. But the Alawites aren’t the only breakup threat.

The consensus among Syria’s Kurdish political factions, encouraged by Iraqi Kurd leader Massoud Barzani, who has hosted talks brokering agreement, is to keep their distance from the rebellion even as they take advantage of the regime’s declining ability to control all of Syria by taking control of their own towns and cities.

They won’t necessarily push for independence, but their alignment with the political leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan — and reports that their fighters have already taken control of many key Syrian Kurdish cities — suggests that they may be staking out an autonomous zone similar to that of their Iraqi counterparts. Turkey, which is waging a ferocious war against its own separatist Kurds, will be particularly concerned about developments in Syria’s Kurdish region, although Ankara’s handling of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy suggests it may be more inclined to opt for a strategy of co-option than of intervention.

Still, if the Alawites, Christians and Kurds all decline to embrace the rebellion, that would mean as many as 1 in 3 Syrians remain at odds with whatever new order replaces Assad. And that creates plenty of room for territorial political contests.

MORE: Eyewitness from Homs: An Alawite Refugee Warns of Sectarian War in Syria

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