Comparative Politics

Syria Slides into the Abyss

Jul 23 '12

The following is a guest post from Mona Yacoubian, a Senior Advisor on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.


With heavy fighting in Syria’s two largest cities and international diplomacy faltering, Syria is poised to descend into a protracted civil war.  The regime’s collapse, whether sudden or protracted, will not herald a peaceful transition.  Instead, competition over who will fill Syria’s impending power vacuum will be brutally violent, propelled by the unleashing of sectarian hatreds inside the country and the accelerated flow of arms from outside.

With the logic and velocity of war now dictating events, the Obama administration’s apparent shift from attempting to manage a transition in Syria to managing the regime’s collapse accurately reflects this new reality.  The prospect of a managed transition perished with the failure of the international community to forge a consensus on pressuring the Assad regime to step down. Going forward, the focus should be on insulating the region from Syria’s spillover, providing humanitarian aid to Syria’s burgeoning displaced population, and laying the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that eventually emerges.

Last week’s bomb attack killing four members of the Syrian regime’s inner circle followed in rapid succession by the UN Security Council’s failure to pass a resolution pressuring the Syrian government to abide by the Annan plan mark Syria’s slide into the abyss.  Together these developments highlight the stark escalation of the Syrian conflict and the failure of external actors to keep pace.

Even before the bombing in the heart of Damascus, indicators of the Assad regime’s potential unraveling were rife. The Syrian capital—once a bubble of relative tranquility amid Syria’s rising violence—had already started to witness significant fighting within city limits. Syrian troops were reportedly re-deployed from the Golan to the environs of Damascus. More concerning, the Syrians started to move some of their chemical weapons-possibly to better secure them as the security situation deteriorated. And that was just last week.

In the previous days, key Sunni supporters of the regime defected. Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who hails from a prominent Sunni tribe and one-time regime insider Manaf Tlass –a childhood friend of the Syrian president whose father had been Hafez al-Assad’s defense minister, both abandoned the regime.  Upon Fares’s defection, clansmen of his tribe which had supported the regime switched allegiances and joined the insurgency.  These high profile Sunni defections accompany a broader trend of accelerating Sunni military defections, including an estimated 25 generals that have fled to Turkey. While Alawite-dominated elite units will likely remain loyal to the bitter end, the Syrian military will increasingly resemble a bristling Alawite super-militia as Sunni elements break off in larger numbers.

The Syrian government’s control over vast swathes of territory is now increasingly questionable.  Intense fighting has reached Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital—largely spared until recently. Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria are also now reportedly in active rebellion.  Meanwhile, rebel forces have seized border crossings with both Turkey and Iraq.  While the regime has regained control of some, a number of border posts remain in opposition hands. Soon, rebels could formally declare their own border area “safe zones,” facilitating easier access to arms and equipment.  These developments raise serious questions about the regime’s command and control across the country.  Increasingly, it appears that these capabilities are severely frayed and that regime’s capacity to re-establish its authority over large areas of the country has been significantly compromised.

With the government possibly losing control over significant areas of Syrian territory, rumors are mounting of a campaign by the regime to secure traditional Alawite strongholds. In particular, the Alawite-dominated regime may seek to establish its own “safe haven” along the coast, from Tartus to Lattakia, and up into Syria’s northwestern mountains—the Alawite sect’s ancestral homeland.  Anecdotal reports note that in some cases Alawite citizens are fleeing Damascus and Aleppo to the relative safety of their ancestral villages.  Meanwhile, the pattern of massacres, such as those in al-Houla and al-Qubair, also could signal an attempt by Alawite elements to clear any Sunni presence from these traditionally Alawite areas and provide “egress” from Damascus to the Alawite regions.  Could the Assad regime’s “plan B” consist of its retreat to its Alawite ancestral heartland?  While far from clear, such a development would portend Syria’s de facto cantonment into sectarian enclaves (see map above).

Not surprisingly, the ferociousness of recent fighting has provoked massive refugee flows into neighboring countries.   The UN estimates as many as 30,000 refugees fled to Lebanon in a 48-hour period.  The total number of Syrian refugees in volatile Lebanon may be as high as 60,000.  Significant numbers of refugees have also fled to neighboring Turkey which now hosts at least 42,000 refugees, while an additional 37,000 refugees reside in Jordan.  Meanwhile, the Syrian Red Crescent estimates that one million Syrians are internally displaced.  In a further indication of Syria’s deepening chaos, Iraqi refugees who had sought refuge in Syria during Iraq’s civil war began streaming back to Iraq by the thousands last Friday.  Taken together, these figures underscore a massive humanitarian crisis in the making.

Throughout Syria’s 16-month long uprising, dynamics on the ground have repeatedly overtaken efforts by the international community to develop a unified, effective response.  Now, with the regime’s demise likely sooner (measured in months, maybe weeks) rather than later, any hope for Syria’s “soft landing” has all but vanished.

US efforts to manage the aftermath of the Assad regime’s collapse will face enormous odds.  Civil wars have a way of taking on their own dynamics, impervious to attempts to shape or direct their outcomes. With Syria descending into chaos, actors inside the country will increasingly default to their atavistic impulses. Meanwhile, outsiders—regional players, jihadists, global powers—will project their own agendas into the mix.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon—each harbors a cautionary tale regarding U.S. involvement and the potential for both near and long term blowback.

The Obama administration should focus on insulating Syria’s neighbors from the conflict’s spillover.  In particular, the United States should work with governments in the region to mitigate the threat of spreading violence, especially in Lebanon and Iraq given their inherent sectarian tensions.  Syria’s chemical weapons—among the region’s largest stockpiles—constitute another significant threat.  The Syrian government has said it would not use the weapons to put down the uprising, but they could be deployed against “external aggression.” Beyond sending clear signals to the Assad regime on the international community’s “red lines,” the United States must ensure that it has adequate contingency plans in place to secure Syria’s scattered chemical weapons sites should the country descend into all-out chaos.

Providing relief and longer term assistance to the growing numbers of Syrian refugees in the region stands as another urgent priority.  Soon Syria’s neighbors’ capacity to host Syrians seeking refuge from the violence could be overwhelmed.  The United States should spearhead international efforts to solicit financial aid and humanitarian supplies for the refugees, facilitating their prompt and effective distribution.  More challenging, but equally urgent, the United States must work with international relief agencies to guarantee that assistance (food, water, medical supplies) reaches Syrians in distress inside Syria.

Finally, the United States should deepen its efforts to work with Syrians both inside and outside the country at shaping a transition plan. Complex issues including governance, security, and transitional justice must be addressed. Outside Syria, the fractious Syrian National Council has fallen prey to internal divisions and rivalries, rendering itself essentially irrelevant. Instead, it will be essential to work not only with Syria’s armed opposition, but also with the Alawite and Christian communities inside Syria to gain their buy-in for a unified vision of post-Assad Syria.