5. The End Game Has Grown More Complex
While there are various exercises underway in Washington and Berlin involving Syrian dissidents in extensive if hypothetical planning for a post-Assad Syria, the operating assumption of much of the thinking and planning assumes that doing away with the dictator takes care of most of the problem: Sure, there would have to be outreach to communities that traditionally supported Assad and some form of reconciliation process to avoid the violent retribution that so many are expecting; and hopefully the rump of the police and national army can be maintained intact to avoid repeating America’s mistakes in Iraq, by ensuring order and avoiding chaos. But generally, the discussion assumes that Syria as we’ve known it will remain intact, albeit with a different and more democratic distribution of power.
Assad, of course, has had other ideas, and has plunged Syria into a vicious sectarian civil war in which neighboring communities have turned on one another in scenarios sometimes reminiscent of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. After 18 months of conflict, it’s worth asking whether what we’re seeing is simply the death throes of a despot, or a new dynamic in which the regime has chosen to fight on a terrain that at once diminishes its power and tacitly abandons its claim to rule all of Syria, but which allows it to survive in that diminished form for a more protracted period?
The growing danger is that the military and communal trajectory being followed by the conflict deals a fatal blow to prospects of stitching Syria back together again, instead creating a situation analogous to Lebanon from the late ’70s, where a protracted civil war left a fractured state that could no longer be ruled by any one power center. It’s not yet clear whether Syria has reached that point, but it is increasingly evident that it has eluded the full gamut of outcomes that ended the Arab rebellions of the past two years.