Why Syria Will Keep Burning

Military analysis.
July 20 2012 5:56 PM

The Syrian Endgame

There are no guarantees. But in almost every scenario, the violence will persist.

Syrian rebels take position near Qusayr, 15 kms (nine miles) from the flashpoint city of Homs, on May 10, 2012.
Syrian rebels take position near Qusayr, Syria, where fighting shows no sign of abating

Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages.

So what happens after Bashar al-Assad falls? Do the new Syrian leaders sever ties with Iran and Hezbollah, to say nothing of Russia and China? Do they make friends with the Saudis, the Turks, and even us? Does the place slide into anarchy, leaving power to those radicals most adept at filling vacuums and then imposing total rule?

The obvious answer is that nobody knows and it’s a fool’s game to guess. Even the question’s premise is shaky, as it’s far from clear that Assad’s regime is on the verge of collapse. Unlike Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who relied mainly on foreign mercenaries to protect his final bastion, Assad will be defended to the death (and possibly afterward) by fellow homegrown Alawite Muslims, who dominate Syria’s security forces and comprise nearly one-fifth of its population, or about 4.5 million people.

The rebels have gained momentum and strength in recent days, assassinating some of Assad’s closest military advisers, luring some prominent defectors, and capturing a few key border stations, including one on the Turkish border, a move that might facilitate the flow of more (and more lethal) weapons.

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But these trends—hopeful as they are—don’t necessarily mean that Syria’s government is about to surrender. To the contrary, earlier this week, Israel’s intelligence chief reported that the Syrian army had removed all its forces from the Golan Heights, on Israel’s border, and redeployed them to Damascus and other cities, presumably to bolster internal security. These forces include Syria’s crack soldiers and a lot of tanks. In other words, Assad may only be just beginning to bring out his heavy firepower.

This is not to say that Assad is in fine shape. To the contrary, it’s a pretty good bet that he’ll be gone, one way or the other, within a matter of months, if not sooner. But it is to say that his fall probably won’t mean the end of the fighting.

The passions are too riled, the stakes are too high, for the combatants on either side to make peace. At some point (and that point may have been passed), their main cause will devolve to simple survival: The fighters on each side will keep fighting because they know that, if they stop, the other side will kill them, either preemptively or in revenge.

Even assuming things do calm down soon after Assad’s departure, that leaves another question: What happens next? Much depends here on just who the next leaders are and what their interests might be.

The New York Times reported in June that CIA officers in southern Turkey are helping U.S. allies decide which Syrian rebels should receive the weapons—rifles, ammo, rocket-propelled grenades, “and some antitank weapons”—that are being funneled across the border. In other words, the CIA is identifying which rebels are not jihadists.

If true (and it would be surprising if something like this weren’t going on), it’s a good idea. But two things are worth noting. First, the CIA might not know which rebels are desirable (or most desirable). Second, as Marc Lynch pointed out at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation, “The idea that if we give [the rebels] weapons, we will then have influence over them strikes me as flawed. There’s no reason to believe they will stay bought just because we’re giving them weapons.”

One could extend the point further. Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people. The group that starts or wins a revolution is not necessarily the group that takes power in the aftermath. At the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, few thought that Lenin’s Bolsheviks—a small, marginal party compared with the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries—would rise to the top. In the wake of last year’s Arab Uprising (a better term, in retrospect, than Arab Spring), the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s first free election, even though the party had little presence in the first days of the Tahrir Square protests.

That said, the United States and its allies in the region have a stake in this conflict. Our influence in shaping the outcome may be limited, but the outcome has huge implications—and that’s why everybody, whether ally or adversary, is very nervous.