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.

1. The Sectarian Bloodbath Continues, or Intensifies

Renewed Arab offers of safe passage for President Bashar Assad if he agrees to abdicate miss the point: his isn’t simply a personality-cult regime; it survives because many thousands of Syrians remain willing to kill for Assad — or at least, to hold the rebellion at bay. Assad runs a system of minority rule that has empowered the Alawite minority, supported by Christians, Druze and other minorities and an elite from within the Sunni majority. And the reason the regime’s core forces remain intact, able and willing to fight on despite the defection of many thousands of Sunni conscripts and even senior officers, is fear of their fate if the rebellion triumphs. The 18 months of violence that has killed as many as 19,000 Syrians and seen many thousands more wounded, tortured, raped and displaced may have helped make protracted violent retribution a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s why even if Assad were willing to go — and there’s no sign that he is — those who have fought for his regime and now feel their backs to the wall are likely to remain armed, organized and willing to defend their turf at all costs. But a triumphant Sunni rebellion that has buried many thousands of “martyrs” would not tolerate armed enclaves of regime supporters in its midst. It’s quite conceivable that a messy sectarian war will rage long after Assad loses meaningful control of Syria as a nation-state.

(MORE: Is Syria’s Assad Going the Way of Gaddafi?)

The obvious solution, in the minds of U.S. officials, is for the opposition to reach out and reassure Alawites, Christians and other minorities of their place in a post-Assad future. Far easier said than done. For one thing, there is no single credible political leadership center that speaks for the rebellion — and the fact that this condition persists some 18 months into the uprising is a disturbing signal of prospects for stability after Assad goes.

Western and Arab powers have spent more than a year trying to turn the exile-based Syrian National Council into a legitimate alternative national leadership, to no avail. It remains divided and ineffectual, and lacks legitimacy among popular local opposition organizations on the ground. Nor does the SNC have any authority over the Free Syrian Army — itself a catch-all term for a wide array of localized military structures — or other insurgent groups, many of them openly sectarian.

The absence of a coherent political leadership over the rebel militias raises the specter of chaos after Assad goes — exacerbated by the likelihood that the pro-regime Shabiha militias, whose thugs have the most to fear, would fight on, independent of central political leadership of their own. And the fact that unemployment among fighting-age Syrians stands at 58% doesn’t bode well for the prospects of demobilizing the armed formations that have waged the civil war. Foreign troops may be needed on the ground not to bring down Assad but to stop the violence after he is gone. But there are unlikely to be many takers for such a thankless mission.

U.S. officials claim that progress had been made in getting exiles to agree broadly on terms of a transition. Given the status of the exile groups, that may not be especially reassuring. “The connections between the opposition and the Free Syrian Army are still tenuous, but they’re getting better,” a State Department official told McClatchy. “If we can get Assad and his cronies out, that will at least create an atmosphere to have a dialogue. That can’t happen now.”

The problem, of course, is that the dialogue that begins after Assad goes could be conducted with bombs and bullets.

PHOTOS: As Syria Grieves: Photographs by Nicole Tung

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