Too much blood has been spilled for a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sides. There’s now only three shows in town for a broken Syria
Inconceivable as it may have seemed at the outbreak of the Arab Spring, when creaking regimes were falling like dominoes, there is a very real possibility that regime forces will prevail in the Syrian Civil War.
Quite what they will be left to rule over is another matter. Damascus is still functioning, as is Allepo, but Homs and towns like it are now husks of their former selves. Still, Assad is slowly retaking ground, and along with allies from Hezbollah, is slowly pushing disparate rebel groups out the larger population centres, back into the suburbs where they can be shelled and bombed more easily. And as the military set backs continue, so the rivalries and tensions within the rebel ranks has heightened. The most glaring fissure has been between Kurds and Jihadists in the North. The native Kurds, seeking autonomy, have reacted furiously to the emergence of a self proclaimed Sunni Caliphate. Scores have died in the subsequent in fighting, and rebel supplies from Turkey have been interrupted.
A total Assad victory is unlikely, but barring any major changes, he is on course to reassert control over the cities. Once the fighting moves back into the country side, he can count on Western interests to wane as images of bombed out city centres leave the evening news reels.
Secretive states, by their very nature, are hard to judge, and their actions are notoriously difficult to predict. No serious analysts predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse as suddenly as did in 1991. Few foresaw Yugoslavia imploding in the manner and haste with which it did. And most failed to predict quote how fragile the Ba’ath Party’s hold on Iraq was once its strong man was forced to flee before the US juggernaught.
That last example is perhaps the best /only case we have to go on when examining Syria. It too has a ruling Ba’ath Party (an odious mix of Arab nationalism and clunky socialism), though like Iraq, it is to a large degree a political fig leaf for the myriad of security services that run arms of the state as their own fiefdoms, constantly kept in competition with each other by an executive unwilling to allow any faction to become too strong.
A collapse of the regime could come in many forms. A US led military strike may so weaken Assad’s command-and-control network that loyalist forces fray and loose cohesion. The rebels may get lucky and take out Assad and a sizeable chunk of his chiefs in a bomb blast. There may even be a palace coup, with senior military figures arresting or executing Assad’s inner circle, either as a peace move, or to remove a leader they deem not to be prosecuting the war vigorously enough.
Yet all are equally bad. Even the rumours of a decapitated leadership could cause a scrabble by local commanders to purge their ranks of real or suspected Ba’athists, to prove that they were unaffiliated to the regime. Some commanders, suspecting a coordinated rebel offensive, may fortify themselves in civilian areas, surrounding themselves with human shields. Worse still, there would be the mother-of-all races by every faction to seize stockpiles of chemical weapons before the other side got to them. A few die-hard commanders may even opt to use them before losing them.
Any sudden collapse would unleash the gates of sectarian Hell. Syria is an incredibly diverse country, with Arab, Druze and Kurdish ethnic identities overlapping with Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Christian religious identities, which then feed into a regional patchwork of rural vs urban, coast vs hinterland, and north vs south.
The sudden collapse of central authority, in a country awash with weapons would create the equivalent of an Arab Yugoslavia…on speed. No single group of rebels could ever hope to hold more than a small patch of territory. Dozens of quasi-fiefdoms would establish themselves, with minorities in each area being purged, further fuelling sectarian hatred and making reconciliation ever harder. And as inevitably happens, the most extremist elements would silence the moderates through fear or force. We’d be faced with the very real possibility of an embryonic new Afghanistan on the Mediterranean, bordering Israel, Turkey and Iraq.
The grimmest of the three scenarios is also the most likely. Although battle hardened and continuing to receive support from Russia, Iran and its proxies, government forces are unlikely to be able to completely cleanse Syria of opposition fighters. Assad will probably retake the shattered cities, where he has most support (Homs notwithstanding), but the North and East are areas too large to control with the forces at his disposal. The rebels, have probably missed their chance at toppling Assad late last year when the fighting reached Damascus. The socially conservative rural areas held the most civilian supporters for the religiously motivated rebels groups, and the FSA’s leadership mistook this for broader sympathy for the rebellion. Once in the more cosmopolitan cities, the rebels found their vision for an Islamist Syria fell on stony ground. When combined with their famous inability to coordinate offensives and their increasing predilection for infighting and rivalry with the Kurds, and its little wonder the rebellion has spluttered to a halt.
Syria in stalemate will be a wretched place, but it will limp on. Raids and suicide attacks by rebels will be met with punitive retaliatory strikes by leadership even more in the hoc of the West’s enemies. The world will wring its hands, but balk at sending anything more than journalists into the vipers nest.