Syria is in dire straits. The once regal and prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo have now become the primary battlefields of the Syrian Army against opposition forces. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the calm and serenity of both Damascus and Aleppo were often touted by the Syrian regime to the world as indicators of Syrian stability. The swift change from peace to turmoil however, has happened almost overnight, with President Assad describing the current battle in Aleppo as decisive of Syria’s fate. The massive explosion which occurred on July 18 in the heart of the Syrian regime’s security organization in Damascus killed a number of people within Assad’s security and military inner circle, shocking the Syrian government and severely shaking the stability of the regime’s pillars.
Despite support from allies such as Iran, Russia and China, Assad’s days and those of his regime seem numbered. The rapid changes occurring at ground level within Syria bear testament to the fact, that the world, together with the Syrians, has started envisioning a post-Assad Syria. That being said, there is a very fine line between the dream of democracy and the nightmare of civil war – both of which may very well happen in a post-Assad Syria. What would the aftermath of a regime collapse in Syria be? Will the country follow in the footsteps of Libya? Or will it fall into civil war the way Lebanon did in the 1970s?
The future of a post-Assad Syria is as of yet unpredictable. Yet in such unpredictability, a key element in the future outcome of a post-Assad Syria is the nation’s ethnic texture. Despite being a Sunni majority country, Syria’s political, economic and military control lies with the Alawi minority. Consequently, the fall of the Syrian regime would mean an end to Alawi domination in the nation’s political and economic spheres. It is only understandable therefore that many in Syria fear a backlash not unlike that between Sunni-Shia forces in post-Saddam Iraq; only this time, in the vacuum of a properly united opposition bloc, armed clashes may occur between the minority Alawai and majority Sunni instead.
Iraq is a clear example of how regime fragmentation can have serious repercussions for Syria, especially because fragmentation may lead to the formation of new autonomous ethnic regions within Syria. The minority Alawis would be in control of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline with their traditional stronghold - the strategic port of Lattakia, as their centre. Simultaneously, the Kurds will declare a Kurdish autonomous region along the borders of Syria and Turkey while the Sunni majority will occupy the Eastern and Southern parts of the country which neighbor Iraq and Jordan.
However, in the void of both a united opposition and international peacekeeping troops, the fragmentation process may result in a violent civil war with repercussions spilling outside Syrian borders into neighboring states. It is worth stating that a full-fledged Syrian civil war may very well place the entire Middle East region in an extremely volatile state. A civil war within Syria will also result in the socio-economic burden of refugees to its neighboring states. As it is, Turkey already plays host to a large number of Syrian refugees, and a full-fledged civil war may increase this number dramatically.
Although the Turkish economy is flourishing, it would nonetheless suffer a major blow due to the influx of a large number of Syrian refugees. Furthermore, the Turkish government cannot risk the expansion of a new Kurdish autonomous region along its borders especially in areas where the PKK is influential. In contrast to Iraqi Kurds, the PKK has greater influence among Kurds within Syria. In a recent development, pro-PKK Kurdish groups within Syria have taken control of Kurdish border cities within Turkey and raised the PKK flag over governmental buildings. The birth of a new Kurdish autonomous region in Syria will therefore most certainly be a serious challenge for the Turkish government in a post-Assad Syria.
The collapse of Assad’s regime will also complicate matters for one of its strategic allies – Iran. Syria has been Iran’s sole Arab partner since the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, and in addition to the religious ties between the Alawis of Syria and the Shias of Iran, Assad’s Syria has long been a strategic hub for the Iranian regime to channel assistance toward the radical Islamic groups of Lebanon - particularly Hezbollah. Losing Assad will not only signify an end to this arrangement but also weakens Iran’s position in Middle East crises negotiations. Recognizing this, the Iranian regime is already preparing itself for a post-Assad Syria in the hopes that an autonomous Alawi-controlled Lattakia region at the border with Lebanon may enable the Iranian regime to continue channeling assistance to Hezbollah and other radical Islamic groups in the region.
The repercussions of such an autonomous region will quite certainly complicate things for Israel as well, as Israel’s border with Syria has always been one of its calmest. It goes without saying that the violent fragmentation of Syria or even a civil war may place the stability of these borders at great risk. Although Israel will benefit from the collapse of the Iranian regime’s main regional ally, the instability of its borders in a post-Assad Syria may create serious challenges for the Tel Aviv government - especially because such instability in an autonomous Alawi region could still provide channels for other entities to supply Hezbollah’s needs while causing severe security concerns for Israel.
Predictably, Syria’s Sunni majority – along with its Alawi and Kurdish minorities, are all clamoring for their share of a post-Assad Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among the rich influential supporters of Syrian Sunnis, are now seeking for opportunities to play stronger roles in the post-Assad Syria. Syria has now turned into a hotly contested prize for the region’s powers, which include Assad’s firm supporter Iran, as well as opposition supporters Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
The fragmentation of Syria would inevitably mean the creation of a majority Sunni region along the borders of Syria with Iraq and Jordan, and as Saudi Arabia lost its influence in Iraq due to Iraq’s pro-Shia government, it is trying its best to reconstruct its regional influence by playing a stronger role in the post-Assad Syria through its support of Syrian Sunnis. Similarly, Qatar is also attempting to introduce itself as a new regional player following its active participation in the Libyan crisis. However, what appears to be particularly worrisome for the Iraqi government and the international community is the potential influence of Wahabi and Salafi ideologies in Sunni regions post-Assad.
Such majority Sunni regions may turn into a safe-haven for Jihadist groups and Al-Qaeda related entities to execute attacks on Shia-majority Iraq. The strengthening of such ideologies in post-Assad Syria can also push Syria into an endless cycle of religious insurgencies between the Alawis and the Sunnis.
The lack of cooperation between Syrian opposition groups, as well as Russian and Chinese support of President Assad are factors that shroud Syria’s future in ambiguity. Furthermore, the lack of practical intervention by members of the international community has also left Syria in a semi civil-war state in which regional players (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are battling one another by proxy via the Syrian army and opposition forces.
As diplomatic means to solve the Syrian crises fades further into the horizon, and the threatening shadow of fragmentation looms over an ever-volatile Syria, it would appear that civil war is inevitable if a post-Assad Syria is to be envisioned. Perhaps Kofi Annan’s resignation as peace envoy to Syria and the escape of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab were the first nails into the coffin of a diplomatic end to the Syrian crisis? For now, the world can only wait and see.