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

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.

PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Civil War

3. Chemical Weapons Let Loose?

The Assad regime’s stocks of chemical weapons — developed decades ago ostensibly as a strategic hedge against the presumed nuclear capability of its prime enemy, Israel — have become an urgent focus of discussion among Western powers and Israel as the regime has begun to teeter. Fears that Assad would use such weapons to suppress a domestic rebellion may be overblown — they don’t exactly lend themselves to urban combat, and Assad’s conduct until now has suggested a keen sense of keeping the level of violence his regime unleashes below a threshold that would bring direct foreign intervention. Chemical weapons would not only cross that threshold but also almost certainly result in him seeing out his days in a prison cell at the Hague. President Obama on Monday warned Assad that he would be “held accountable” should those weapons be used.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

The chemical-weapons problem, however, may be more acute post-Assad. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz on Monday that Assad “is handling chemical weapons responsibly,” taking steps to avoid them falling into rebel hands by moving them to more remote locations away from the fighting. Syria’s Foreign Minister on Monday vowed that such weapons would be kept safe and used only in the event of “foreign aggression.” Israel’s concern, of course, is that should the regime fall, those weapons could find their way into the hands of Hizballah, Syria’s longtime ally, or else be commandeered by jihadist elements in the rebel camp.

The official told Haaretz that while there are no signs that Assad intends to move chemical weapons to Hizballah and is securing them from the rebels, “Israel is still very concerned because it is hard to know if these steps will be sufficient on the day Assad falls.”

Thus the irony: as long as Assad is in power, he can probably be relied on to refrain from using those weapons and keep them out of the hands of nonstate actors. But should the regime collapse precipitously, he’d be in no position to do so. And while the U.S. and Israel are weighing contingency plans to neutralize the threat posed by those weapons, any such intervention carries plenty of additional political risk.

MORE: Circling the Wagons on Syria

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

5. What Happens in Syria Doesn’t Stay in Syria

Look at the map of the modern Middle East and what jumps out are the number of ruler-straight lines that describe the borders defining Syria and its neighbors Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. These nation-states were all invented less than a hundred years ago, on the drawing boards of France and Britain as they gerrymandered what became a series of minority-ruled states out of what had been a series of Ottoman provinces. The Sunni minority came to rule Iraq; the Alawites came to rule Syria; Lebanon was created to give Maronite Christians a state of their own, but they too were reduced to a minority and then lost power; Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy ruled over a state whose majority today is Palestinian; and in the British colonial entity of Palestine, Jewish immigrants from Europe (who comprised about 45% of the population in 1948) emerged in control.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq ended Sunni minority rule and sent sectarian political shockwaves across the region. Shi’ite majority rule may have been the democratic outcome, but it was never accepted by Iraq’s Sunnis or by their patrons in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Sunni-Shi’ite tensions have simmered across the region, flaring up in Lebanon and Bahrain — but Syria could prove to be a game changer.

(MORE: Is Syria Facing a Yugoslavia-Style Breakup?)

There are signs that Lebanon’s fragile peace may not survive the fall of Assad, with Saudi-backed Sunni groups tempted to take the opportunity of Hizballah being weakened by the loss of its Syrian patron and arms supplier to break the Shi’ite movement’s political and military dominance. Similarly, the defeated Sunnis of Iraq will take courage from the success of their kin across a border straddled by their tribal and clan networks to push back against the Iran-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Jordan’s pro-Western monarchy is politically weak, and the same bleak economic outlook that drove many of Syria’s rural Sunnis to rebellion prevails in much of the Jordanian hinterland. The triumph of an armed Sunni rebellion in Syria is likely to spur Jordan’s Sunni Islamist opposition — both its more moderate parliamentary arm and its more radical extremist element — to press their case, possibly fueled by an influx of refugees from Syria.

Even Israel has little reason to enthuse about Assad’s fall: his regime postured resistance and empowered Hizballah, but Israel’s border with Syria had been stable for near on four decades under the Assads. Posturing resistance to Israel, in fact, was in part an ideological device through which an Alawite-dominated regime sought to legitimize itself in the eyes of the Sunni majority. Today, however, residents of Syria’s massive Palestinian refugee camps appear to have thrown in their lot with the rebellion, and Hamas broke with Assad and left town last year. Even if concerns about chemical weapons or jihadists on the Golan fail to materialize, Israel could find itself living alongside a new, Sunni-led Syrian polity that, if anything, could be even more insistent than Assad had been on recovering the Golan, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war — and which Israel has no inclination to give up.

When Assad falls, those straight lines on the maps drawn in the foreign offices of France and Britain in the 1920s will start to look even fuzzier than they already are. What happens in Syria is unlikely to stay in Syria.

MORE: In Rebel Syria: Celebrating Assad’s Departure — Even Though He’s Still Staying

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