War Stories

The Syrian Endgame

There are no guarantees. But in almost every scenario, the violence will persist.

Syrian rebels take position near Qusayr, 15 kms (nine miles) from the flashpoint city of Homs, on May 10, 2012.

Syrian rebels take position near Qusayr, Syria, where fighting shows no sign of abating

Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages.

So what happens after Bashar al-Assad falls? Do the new Syrian leaders sever ties with Iran and Hezbollah, to say nothing of Russia and China? Do they make friends with the Saudis, the Turks, and even us? Does the place slide into anarchy, leaving power to those radicals most adept at filling vacuums and then imposing total rule?

The obvious answer is that nobody knows and it’s a fool’s game to guess. Even the question’s premise is shaky, as it’s far from clear that Assad’s regime is on the verge of collapse. Unlike Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who relied mainly on foreign mercenaries to protect his final bastion, Assad will be defended to the death (and possibly afterward) by fellow homegrown Alawite Muslims, who dominate Syria’s security forces and comprise nearly one-fifth of its population, or about 4.5 million people.

The rebels have gained momentum and strength in recent days, assassinating some of Assad’s closest military advisers, luring some prominent defectors, and capturing a few key border stations, including one on the Turkish border, a move that might facilitate the flow of more (and more lethal) weapons.

But these trends—hopeful as they are—don’t necessarily mean that Syria’s government is about to surrender. To the contrary, earlier this week, Israel’s intelligence chief reported that the Syrian army had removed all its forces from the Golan Heights, on Israel’s border, and redeployed them to Damascus and other cities, presumably to bolster internal security. These forces include Syria’s crack soldiers and a lot of tanks. In other words, Assad may only be just beginning to bring out his heavy firepower.

This is not to say that Assad is in fine shape. To the contrary, it’s a pretty good bet that he’ll be gone, one way or the other, within a matter of months, if not sooner. But it is to say that his fall probably won’t mean the end of the fighting.

The passions are too riled, the stakes are too high, for the combatants on either side to make peace. At some point (and that point may have been passed), their main cause will devolve to simple survival: The fighters on each side will keep fighting because they know that, if they stop, the other side will kill them, either preemptively or in revenge.

Even assuming things do calm down soon after Assad’s departure, that leaves another question: What happens next? Much depends here on just who the next leaders are and what their interests might be.

The New York Times reported in June that CIA officers in southern Turkey are helping U.S. allies decide which Syrian rebels should receive the weapons—rifles, ammo, rocket-propelled grenades, “and some antitank weapons”—that are being funneled across the border. In other words, the CIA is identifying which rebels are not jihadists.

If true (and it would be surprising if something like this weren’t going on), it’s a good idea. But two things are worth noting. First, the CIA might not know which rebels are desirable (or most desirable). Second, as Marc Lynch pointed out at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation, “The idea that if we give [the rebels] weapons, we will then have influence over them strikes me as flawed. There’s no reason to believe they will stay bought just because we’re giving them weapons.”

One could extend the point further. Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people. The group that starts or wins a revolution is not necessarily the group that takes power in the aftermath. At the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, few thought that Lenin’s Bolsheviks—a small, marginal party compared with the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries—would rise to the top. In the wake of last year’s Arab Uprising (a better term, in retrospect, than Arab Spring), the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s first free election, even though the party had little presence in the first days of the Tahrir Square protests.

That said, the United States and its allies in the region have a stake in this conflict. Our influence in shaping the outcome may be limited, but the outcome has huge implications—and that’s why everybody, whether ally or adversary, is very nervous.

Most nervous are the Shiite leaders of Iran. For many years, Syria has served as the main funnel through which Iran has expanded its regional influence, not least by pouring money and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For that reason, early on in his presidency, Barack Obama tried to lure Assad away from Iran through diplomatic means; various Sunni Arab leaders have made similar overtures, all to no avail. Now, if Assad is toppled, his successors—whoever they might be—are unlikely to remain Iran’s lackeys. In other words, the effect will be what Obama and the Sunnis had aimed for: the weakening and isolation of Iran. With one important exception: This new Syria, whatever else it might be, is likely to be seething with persistent violence.

In one sense, the Israeli government would be happy to see Assad go; he and his father before him have long declared Syria to be at war with Israel. In another sense, though, the Golan has been fairly stable in recent years: Few Israelis have worried about a Syrian invasion from the north, and, judging from Assad’s redeployment of all his troops from the Golan to his own cities, he isn’t much worried about an Israeli invasion from the south.

Israelis do have this worry, though: If Syria tumbles into anarchy, if no new government can be formed, or if the new government isn’t strong enough to contain (or kick out) the smattering of jihadists who have crossed into the country to exploit the current chaos, the Golan Heights could turn into a festering wound of instability and a haven for terrorists, like southern Lebanon during its long civil war in the 1980s.

What can the United States do to advance the rebels’ cause and help stabilize their rule when they form a new government? There really isn’t much we (or any other outside power) can do, beyond what we seem to be doing already (and it’s a good guess that the New York Times article on the CIA’s efforts just begins to skim the extent of those measures). The neocons who call for an American invasion of Syria seem already to have forgotten the brutal lessons of the last 10 years of war. (Toppling Assad? No problem, with one arm tied behind our back. Imposing order and democracy afterward? Another matter entirely.) Imposing a “no-fly rule” on Assad’s regime, as some have suggested, is the stuff of cliché: Assad isn’t doing much shelling from the air; and if he started doing so, any airplane we’d shoot down would probably land on civilians in cities.

Assuming Assad keeps resisting a settlement (as seems likely), the best course of action is to continue condemning his actions, support the rebels in a low-key way (doing a lot overtly might be ineffective, as well as harmful to the rebels’ long-term political prospects and a confirmation in many eyes of Assad’s claim that the rebels are western agents), and—if they do win the battle—help them, to the extent they want our help, in the aftermath.

One thing we definitely should not do is to inflate this crisis into something much vaster than warranted. Michael Ignatieff has a batty essay in the latest New York Review of Books arguing that the Syrian civil war has mutated into “a proxy war between the Great Powers,” an epochal, transformative event in which a “loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies now finds itself face to face with two authoritarian despotisms—Russia and China—something new in the annals of political science.”

First, Russia and China have engaged in outrageous behavior, supplying Assad with arms and vetoing three U.N. resolutions calling for sanctions. But the notion that this marks “something new” is a head-scratcher. The United States is far from an innocent in the business of bolstering hideous tyrants for the sake of some national interest, however dubiously contrived.

Second, a “proxy war” means a war between rival nations, fought on some third party’s territory in order to minimize the destruction. Vietnam was a proxy war; Nicaragua was a proxy war. (Or at least the superpowers saw them as such; the Vietnamese and Nicaraguans had a different viewpoint.) America is not at war with Russia or China. If it were, Syria would be unlikely terrain for such a contest: None of the “Great Powers” (a quaint term in this polycentric, if not a-centric, world) is sending troops or anything more potent than fairly small arms. The conflict could escalate into something more serious. One job of diplomats is to keep it from doing so, not to indulge in fantasies reeking of nostalgia for Cold War gun-boating and childhood board games of Risk.