Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Next Steps in Syria

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Next Steps in Syria

Article excerpt

Nearly 3 years since the start of the Syrian civil war, no clear winner is in sight. Assassinations and defections of civilian and military loyalists close to President Bashar al-Asad, rebel success in parts of Aleppo and other key towns, and the spread of violence to Damascus itself suggest that the regime is losing ground to its opposition. The tenacity of government forces in retaking territory lost to rebel factions, such as the key town of Qusayr, and attacks on Turkish and Lebanese military targets indicate, however, that the regime can win because of superior military equipment, especially airpower and missiles, and help from Iran and Hizballah. No one is prepared to confidently predict when the regime will collapse or if its opponents can win. At this point several assessments seem clear:

* The Syrian opposition will continue to reject any compromise that keeps Asad in power and imposes a transitional government that includes loyalists of the current Baathist regime. While a compromise could ensure continuity of government and a degree of institutional stability, it will almost certainly lead to protracted unrest and reprisals, especially if regime appointees and loyalists remain in control of the police and internal security services.

* How Asad goes matters. He could be removed by coup, assassination, or an arranged exile. Whether by external or internal means, building a compromise transitional government after Asad will be complicated by three factors: disarray in the Syrian opposition, disagreement among United Nations (UN) Security Council members, and an intransigent sitting government. Asad was quick to accept Russia's proposal on securing chemical weapons but may not be so accommodating should Russia or Iran propose his removal.

* U.S. ambivalence has neither helped to shore up opposition to the Asad regime nor quelled the violence. While most observers acknowledge the complexity of the situation on the ground, Syria's civil war is spreading sectarian and ethnic fighting and instability to its neighbors. Religious and ethnic extremists are attacking each other as well as regime targets. Sunni and Shia extremists may be few in number, but they are able to draw on financial support from similarly minded individuals in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf, according to a Council on Foreign Relations study and interviews with regional experts. (1) Kurdish nationalists in Syria and Iraq focus more on anti-Turkish operations, which the Asad regime encourages. Extremists could grow in size and strength as the violence continues or if the United States intervenes. Fighting Asad or foreign military intervention will draw attention and give them legitimacy, whether religious or ethnic based.

It Matters How Asad Is Removed

How regime change occurs in Syria is as important as what replaces the current regime. Asad could be removed by civil war or assassination, by a military or party coup, or by an arrangement brokered by foreign powers in consultation with regional partners and with the Syrian regime and/or opposition factions. Most Syrians and Syria watchers expect there will be a degree of continuity in which elements of the regime play a role in whatever replaces the current government. This consensus on continuity reflects in part an important lesson learned from the inability of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq to win national backing and the highly diverse population in Syria, where Alawi, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities all seek parity with the Sunni Arab majority.

The Yemen Option: A Negotiated Exit. Similar to the plan negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that removed Ali Abdallah Salih in Yemen, Russia and Iran would negotiate an amnesty and safe exit for Asad and his immediate family. Officials of the old regime would assume a prominent role in the transitional government, which would be led by a "credible" regime figure with limited authority. …

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