Syrian Scenarios

Now that the Arab League has decided to ask the UN Security Council to back its plan to resolve the crisis in Syria, the prospects of international involvement in Syria inch forward just a bit more. This adds a new dimension to the already fertile debate on how the mounting violence and expanding political crisis in Syria will end. In the past several months, I have heard dozens of suggested scenarios. Some are plausible, others are fantastic, but all are suggested seriously by usually knowledgeable observers and analysts, and they go something like this.

Now that the Arab League has decided to ask the UN Security Council to back its plan to resolve the crisis in Syria, the prospects of international involvement in Syria inch forward just a bit more. This adds a new dimension to the already fertile debate on how the mounting violence and expanding political crisis in Syria will end. In the past several months, I have heard dozens of suggested scenarios. Some are plausible, others are fantastic, but all are suggested seriously by usually knowledgeable observers and analysts, and they go something like this.

The most common scenario I hear is that tensions and violence will continue to the point in the coming year where economic collapse causes some influential Syrians in the Assad regime to carry out an inside coup, after despairing that Bashar Assad’s leadership can find a political solution to the crisis. Such a coup would be led by Alawite and Sunni armed forces officers who would recognize the need to make a deal with the demonstrators and send Syria onto a path of serious political democratization, while sparing the Alawite community from widespread retributions after the fall of the House of Assad. A variation of this sees an inside plot to assassinate the top leaders, and bring an immediate end to the crisis.

Another common scenario sees the Russians recognizing that Assad’s approach is doomed to fail and shifting away from their current course of using their veto to prevent any Security Council moves to pressure Damascus. In this script, Russia convinces Assad to step down and leave the country with his extended family and their riches.

A variation on this sees a combination of Alawite leaders, armed forces officers and top businessmen who collectively decide that they are all doomed if the current trends persist, and work together to do one of two things: Either they engineer a coup and force Assad’s exit, or they sit him down and make it clear that his three pillars of support all see only doom, death and destruction in their common future and convince him to turn over power to a democratic transition leadership before total collapse ruins the country.

A more dramatic possibility in some people’s view is for regional and global powers to decide to impose no-fly zones and safe havens along the country’s northern and southern borders, which would speed up the defection of tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers and civilians and speed up the collapse of the regime from within. This would be hastened by the continued economic deterioration that would impact all sectors of society, as tighter international sanctions — including bans on aviation and banking links with Syria — lead to a combination of shortages of basic goods and runaway inflation that makes it impossible for most Syrians to live a normal life. This would also spark massive anti-regime demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo, which would be the death-knell of the Assad brand.

A more drastic possibility in the view of some analysts is that the polarization of Syrian society on ethnic lines and full civil war will reach the point where the unified state that now exists collapses, and the Alawites retreat into their mountains and form their own state in their northwestern heartland. Some suggest that this has been the aim of the crisis all along, with someone from outside provoking civil strife to the point where Syria breaks up into small statelets, including Alawite, Druze, Kurdish and Sunni entities. This would occur at the same time that Iraq similarly disintegrates as a unified country and leaves behind Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish entities of some sort. One culprit behind this scenario it is said, of course, is Israel-America, whose desire for hegemonic control of the Middle East is made much easier by the presence of many smaller, weaker ethnic statelets rather than larger, stronger Arab states. In such a scenario Israel would quickly come to the aid of some of these ethnic statelets — as it tried to do with some Lebanese sectarian groups in the 1980s — and thus cement both the fragmentation of the Levant and its dominance of it.

The most terrible scenario sees the continued deterioration in Syria lead the Assad regime to implement the Samson option, which is to instigate as much strife and chaos across the region as it could, and plunge the entire Levant into a regional conflagration. This option would be based on the assumption by the Assads that if they cannot rule over a unified Syria, then nobody in the neighborhood would be able to live in peace and security either. Such a scenario would involve attacks against, or fomenting strife within, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, perhaps resulting in large-scale, desperate use of chemical and nuclear weapons.

These are only the most plausible scenarios that are widely circulated in the region these days. The more outrageous ones are left for another day to ponder.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri–distributed by Agence Global.

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