6 Predictions About What Will Happen in Syria

News Abroad
tags: Syria



James L. Gelvin is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd EditionThe Modern Middle East: A History, and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War.


Baseball player and pundit Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are difficult—particularly about the future. Throwing caution to the wind, here are six predictions concerning the future of Syria:

Prediction #1: In Syria parts of the regime will not turn against other parts of the regime, nor will the regime simply splinter.

 Syria is unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where one part of the regime (the military) turned against another (the executive). It is also unlike Libya and Yemen, where the regime splintered.  Because of this the only possible military outcome is total victory for the state, total victory for the opposition, or stalemate.

The reason for this is the way in which Hafez al-Assad constructed the regime, which Bashar al-Assad kept intact. Before the 1970 “corrective revolution” that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, Syria was the most unstable country in the Arab world, having experienced ten coups d’état since independence in 1946. When al-Assad took power, he restructured the regime in a manner that built in mechanisms for self-preservation. In the words of Rand Corporation senior analyst James T. Quinlivan, he “coup-proofed” the regime.

Coup-proofing refers to a series of steps leaders in Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have taken to ensure regime survival. Three of these steps are particularly important for understanding developments in Syria:

1. Distribution of coup-critical positions to trusted members of family and select factions within the minority Alawite community.

2. The creation of multiple security and military forces with overlapping jurisdiction. Some of these military units are outside the normal chain of command.

There are also 17 security organizations, including the shabiha—mostly Alawite thugs who have been responsible for so much of the violence.

3. Outreach to other communities to build alliances. Hence, the integration of Sunni business elites into what Patrick has called the “military-mercantile complex.”

Coup-proofing has affected the Syrian civil war in a number of ways:

The identification of the Syrian regime with the Alawite community, along with the regime’s stigmatizing of the opposition as salafis, jihadis, takfiris, and the like, sectarianized the civil war. This was, of course, intentional on the part of the government: Convinced that an opposition victory would remove the only barrier between themselves and annihilation, members of minority groups circled their wagons around the regime. This is what one of the Arab development reports called “legitimacy of blackmail”.

Coup-proofing has prevented wholesale defections or visible cleavages within the ruling institution. The infrequent defections that have occurred have not come from the inner circle of the regime, and none have been Alawites. The inner circle of the regime understands that they would all have to hang together or they would all hang separately.

Finally, coup-proofing created uncertainty on the part of powerful members of the Sunni community as to which side to take in the opening months of the rebellion, lest they lose their connection to the regime.

Prediction #2: A negotiated settlement is improbable. 

A negotiated settlement is only possible if two conditions are met. First, both the regime and the most important components of the opposition would have to view the battlefield situation as hopelessly deadlocked, and they would have to do so simultaneously. After all, if there were a chance your side might achieve total victory, why should you bother to attempt to reach a compromise through negotiations? The second condition that has to be fulfilled to reach a negotiated settlement is that every major outside player—the United States and other Western states, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and others—would also have to come to the conclusion—again simultaneously—that there was no chance their clients could score a victory on the battlefield and that, in the big scheme of things, the battle for Syria was just not worth the cost. Otherwise, when your side is down why not try to restore its fortunes by pumping in more supplies, heavier and more lethal weapons, cash, and perhaps fresh recruits? Under current conditions, neither of these two conditions is likely to be fulfilled.

All this being said, there is one possibility, albeit farfetched, that might enable a negotiated settlement to prevail. Why should the principal outside powers like the United States and Iran treat Syria as a separate problem to be solved in isolation? Why not complicate the Syria problem by making it one of a number of issues to be brought to the table at the same time? This would increase the number of possible trade-offs and compromises, allow governments to save face through reciprocal exchanges, and make grand bargains possible.

For example, Iran has a stake in Syria. But Iran also has interests which it wants to protect in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gulf, etc. It wants relief from sanctions and to continue its nuclear program. And, probably most important, Iran wants recognition that it is an important regional player and it wants its voice heard in international councils deciding the fate of the region. This is the so-called “grand bargain” which occasionally is spoken of in Washington (and perhaps Tehran). It faces a number of obstacles. There are hardliners on both sides. There is the opposition of Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular, and their lobbies in the United States Congress. There is a lack of imagination on the part of politicians. There is also the inability of the United States to break out of established cold war alliances. And thereareyears of mistrust between the principals. All this makes the implementation of a grand bargain improbable.

Prediction #3: The break-up of Syria is improbable. 

Although there has been a lot of loose talk recently about the end of the state system in the Middle East as it currently exists, there is little likelihood that Syria will fragment. To put it more precisely, there is little likelihood that Syria will be allowed to fragment.

There are two reasons for this: First, both international and regional players have too much at stake to allow it to occur. A divided Syria would cause no end of headaches to both sets of players: How would the Turks react if Rojava became the core of an irredentist Kurdish state? How would the United States and Israel react to a splintering of Syria, particularly since the latter was in secret negotiations with the Assad regime about the final disposition of the Golan Heights up through the outbreak of the Syrian uprising?

Since World War II, both great and minor powers have stood watch over the Middle East state system to maintain a balance of power in the region, to reverse possible precedent-setting break ups, and to protect interests they consider to be vital (in the case of the United States, that currently means protection of Israel and oil). Hence, for example, British and American interventions to ensure Kuwait did not become the nineteenth province of Iraq in 1961 and 1991.

This brings us to the second reason there is little likelihood the international community will allow Syria to fragment: that community prefers failed states to fragmented ones.

What, then does this mean for the future of Syria? The former UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, coined the term “Somalization” to describe what he foresees as the future of Syria. It is unlikely the Syrian regime will be able to crush the opposition and retake control over the entirety of Syrian territory. It is also unlikely that one or more groupings within the heterogeneous opposition will be able to dislodge the regime from its strongholds. It is therefore, probable that Syria will end up like Somalia: Syria will hold a seat at the United Nations. It will continue to issue postage stamps and passports. But as in the case of Somalia, its existence as a state will be more fictive than real.

Prediction #4: The Islamic State will be destroyed in Iraq but only degraded in Syria. 

The Islamic State is particularly vulnerable for a number of reasons: It rests on an unsteady coalition which brings together true believers, former Ba‘thist officers and enlisted personnel, and tribal levies. Its brutality has made it extremely unpopular wherever it has implanted itself. Its call for Muslims to make hijra to the caliphate has not brought people with the skills necessary to run a state. Its revenue streams, particularly those involving oil, ransoms, donations, and trafficking in antiquities, have been cut off or reduced. Coalition bombing has taken a toll, both tactically and strategically, and prevents Islamic State forces from massing, a necessary precondition for launching a major offensive. It has never faced an organized army and was not even capable of standing up to Peshmerga and the People’s Protective Units in Kobani (where it lost 1,500 fighters). As it loses territory, it loses its appeal. It is riven with cleavages. The most recent to appear has been between foreign jihadists, who are treated better than local volunteers, and those volunteers. It has turned increasingly paranoid, engaging in purges, executions of its own members, and show trials. And it is a small organization (from 31,000 to 70,000) fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies.

As a result of these problems, the Islamic State has already been put on the defensive in Iraq where the caliphate is losing strategic territory.

Syria, however, is a different story: There is little chance the regime will regain control over all its territory and it is not even certain that the regime views the Islamic State as its principal enemy (according to Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, between January and November 2014, 64% of ISIS/Islamic State attacks in Syria were against other rebel forces and only 13% against Syrian security forces).

Under present conditions, there are about a thousand “gangs” consisting of more than 125,000 fighters battling over turf—principally turf which derives added value from oil or lying on major smuggling routes. With the coalition wary of doing anything to strengthen the Assad regime, and with the regime itself ambivalent about taking on the Islamic State, there is scant possibility for eradicating the Islamic State in Syria in the near future.

Prediction #5: The sectarianization of Syrian society, which the civil war did so much to advance, will prove irreversible.

At the start of the uprising the government relied on the formal security services, along with Alawite gangs, the shabiha, to quell the disturbances. It also organized armed “popular committees” to protect Alawite villages, and equipped pro-regime vigilantes with knives and clubs to be used in street battles with mostly unarmed protesters. Because all of these were identified with the Alawite community, the regime’s strategy had an effect that it undoubtedly foresaw and cynically exploited: it sectarianized the conflict and secured the unqualified loyalty of much of the Alawite and Christian communities who came to fear the worst should the regime fall. Members of the formal and informal security apparatus also provoked tit-for-tat sectarian violence to validate the regime’s claim that those fighting it were Islamists, not democrats.

Although Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians might have harbored negative attitudes about members of other communities before the uprising, a public civility had characterized their interrelationship. That public civility, which was fostered by Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians living in close proximity, frequenting the same markets and coffeehouses, and sharing public transportation, is now gone, as Syrians increasing inhabit segregated spaces separated by walls and no man’s lands. So long as Syria remains informally partitioned, that segregation will continue and broaden. And in the unlikely event of a political settlement, minorities will undoubtedly demand written guarantees defining their rights, particularly their right to proportional representation in governance. This will inscribe sectarianism into the political process on a permanent basis, à la Lebanon. Wherever in the Middle East a sectarian system has been inscribed into a state’s political or geographic fabric, it has remained. In all likelihood, a sectarianized Syria is here to stay.

Prediction #6: Syrian society is unlikely to heal from the devastation caused by the conflict. 

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as of the beginning of 2015 the death toll from the civil war had reached 210,000 (the organization has added the caveat that its statistics might be as far off as 85,000). In addition, more than 1.5 million Syrians have been injured. USAID has estimated that by March 2015 there were 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians. Adding that number to the estimated 3.9 million external refugees, the percentage of displaced Syrians has reached close to 50 percent of the prewar population.

Then there is the damage to infrastructure. The uprising transformed the physical face of Syria and with it the ties that had bound communities together. During the first three years of the uprising, fighting destroyed about one-third of the housing stock in the country and reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble. Estimates on the cost of reconstructing the infrastructure of Syria—a task that would take decades to complete—run from a low of $73 billion to a high of $200 billion. Most estimates run somewhere in the middle, making it improbable that in a post-2008 economy such sums would be forthcoming from the international community.



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