As the war in Syria drags on, it is becoming ever more vicious. Militias kill hundreds of civilians, ethnic cleansing large swaths of the country in the process. Rebel groups fight among themselves for territory and even assassinate each other’s leaders. Prisoners are regularly tortured. Millions have fled their homes in fear. 100,000 are dead. Extremists now hold the upper hand on both sides. In the latest outrage, the Assad regime has apparently used chemical weapons, gassing hundreds to death.
Where will all this misery lead? What does the future of Syria hold?
As I warned in 2011, Syria is a complex mosaic of different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups, a tinderbox that was destined to explode if the fragile peace that the Assad regime enforced was disturbed. Now that the country has imploded, there is no easy way out.
The conflict could easily last another decade, and only end when the international community or a neighboring power (such as Turkey) decides its awfulness exceeds the risks of intervention. Lebanon’s civil war lasted 15 years (1975-1990), and ended only when Syria intervened. Iraq’s civil war (2006-08) would have been far worse if there were no American troops in the country.
Today, Syria is divided into multiple enclaves. The regime’s enclave is the largest, covering about half the population and a third of the country. But local militias have grown increasingly important as time goes on meaning the central government’s writ does not uniformly extend across even its own territory. The Kurds have a piece in the far northeast, though Sunni extremist groups have disrupted the peace there in recent months. These same groups control their own swathe of land in the north and east. Elsewhere, there is much splintering, with many areas controlled by local forces. In some places, every other village or street may have different defense forces.
Ethnic cleansing means that these areas are far more homogenous now than they were before the war. Damascus remains pretty mixed, but there are few Alawites outside the government zone, Kurds have concentrated in their own areas, and many Christians from the north have fled. What was once one of the world’s most interestingly diverse places—with thousands of years of history built into that diversity—is no more.
There are at least seven scenarios for the future of the country:
1) Assad victory. Although this is more likely than before due to continued support from Iran and Russia, the entry of Hezbollah fighters into the fray, and continued fragmentation among the rebels, it is not very likely because the regime lacks the manpower and resources to reconquer all the territory lost. It does, however, have a stronger position than a few months ago, and has been consolidating its hold on the territory it controls.
2) Good rebel victory. At the moment, this likely needs significant outside assistance to happen. Iranian and Hezbollah aid has to be curtailed. A significant number of Alawites have to be convinced that they will be safe after they lay down their arms. And outside aid has to be delivered in a way that strengthens and consolidates moderate forces such that they take over the country. Moderates would rule inclusively and without retribution against losers. But this scenario looks very unlikely as of now because moderate forces are heavily fragmented and extremist groups have gained power in many opposition areas.
3) Bad rebel victory. In this case, extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has announced its allegiance to al-Qaida, take advantage of the curtailing of Iranian aid and foreign assistance to claim victory. This would lead to massive retribution and a rigid orthodoxy. It would also produce an even greater refugee crisis, as millions of Alawites and Christians flee into Lebanon and Turkey. The “good” rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel umbrella organization, should ideally exclude the extremist groups from any military or political coalition, but they are too powerful for this. Exclusion could also lead to greater conflict, or even a second civil war. In any case, what the good rebels think may be irrelevant: the extremists are better positioned to win the war. They have done relatively well in the fighting when compared to other rebel groups and have greater cohesion.
4) Stalemate. At this point, a stalemate is very likely. The two sides are not strong enough to control all or even most of the country. If either side makes significant gains, the other is likely to be reinforced from abroad. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, as a stalemate that went on for an extended period of time and showed both sides that they cannot win is the only way to encourage them to take negotiations seriously. And negotiations are the only conceivably way to end the war if no major power intervenes.
5) Country breakup. The longer the war goes on, the more likely this will happen. In some ways, it already has. The existing regime, backed by Alawites, many Christians, and some of the old Sunni elite, would retain control over a strip of land that included Damascus and much of the coast. It would be supported by Russia and Iran. Sunnis would control an equivalent amount of land, stretching from the northwest to the Iraqi border, including possibly Aleppo (see map). It would be backed by Sunni states, though divisions between these would have to be overcome (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have backed different factions). The Druze would control the southeast, probably in alliance with the Sunnis. A Kurdish northeast might seek independence or some sort of alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan. This scenario might lead to peace faster except that neighbors would both oppose any division of the country and want to keep backing their particular client mini-state.
6) Regional conflict. The likelihood of this also increases the longer the war goes on. Lebanon and Iraq have already suffered from spillover: bombs have gone off in South Beirut and Tripoli in the past week and Sunni extremists have been strengthened in Iraq in recent months. It is not out of the realm of possibility that these trends will continue and a broad Sunni-Shiite conflict will engulf the whole Levant. This is the worst result, and would have even greater consequences for the region. Over 50 million people would be directly affected.
7) Chaos. This is the Somalia scenario. An extended period of statelessness and persistent conflict would institutionalize a war economy, and give emerging warlords, militia leaders, and criminal networks a vested interest in continuing the conflict. Those outside the country would be encouraged to reestablish their lives elsewhere, reducing the chance that they will ever return. Those within the country would increasingly be left without schooling or economic opportunity beyond the war effort. More would flee.
These seven scenarios are not completely separate from each other. Stalemate could, for instance, lead to greater spillover. The country’s breakup could be accompanied by chaos.
Although no outside power will intervene with enough force and staying power to end the conflict at this point, there are still a number of important low risk actions outsiders can take:
1) Red lines over the use of chemical weapons or other WMDs must be enforced. The United States should follow through on its threats or the use of these will increase, and many more civilians will suffer the consequences.
2) Regional contagion must be prevented. The international community should do more to bring together the leaders of the various factions in Lebanon and Iraq to work out their differences or at least agree to work together to minimize spillover before it is too late.
3) More must be done to unite and empower the moderate rebel groups. This is the only force whose victory could lead to reconciliation.
4) More thought ought to be undertaken to determine what structure of government might work in such a deeply divided country. Calls for elections are stale when trust is so low and the end of the war so far away.
5) A stalemate that leads to a ceasefire should be encouraged, as it is probably the best end result that is possible at this point. Peace negotiations will lead nowhere, but anything that reduces or ends the bloodshed should be considered.
Eventually the only answer for the country—and possibly the whole Levant region—is a heavily decentralized system of government that allows each local group or area to manage their own affairs in some form of weak confederacy until trust and trade can gradually recover enough so that people clamor for a more centralized system. Unfortunately, the modern state system, which empowers central governments and insists on rigid ways of organizing states and the divisions between them, will make it hard to take this route.