This post is a reply to a comment on a different article that I wrote about the Russian agenda in Syria.
The comment that was made is the following:
Ahsan said: “Given that Russia is supporting Assad, USA is supporting the rebels, how do you see the future playing out?”
1st of all I would like to state that besides the US and Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia also play a big role in the Syrian conflict. The southern part of Turkey is used to arm and train Syrian rebels and Saudi Arabia is arming and paying salaries to Syrian rebels.
Survival of the regime
I don’t think that the Assad regime will survive. However the conflict will probably not be over anytime soon. A large part of the Syrian people still supports Assad. Most of them just want stability so they can properly feed their families. This may seem odd to some Westerners but they actually don’t care if they are ruled by a dictator as long as they have bread to eat.
The rebel forces certainly have become stronger during the last weeks. I don’t think that they are able to defeat the Syrian forces militarily, but they don’t have to. For the rebels to “win” this conflict they have to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people, Syrian soldiers and Assad’s inner circle. If the rebels can do enough harm with their guerrilla tactics to the Syrian military so that the Syrian people, soldiers and the inner circle start to believe that Assad can no longer protect them, then eventually the regime will fall.
We have seen a number of high figures defect in the last couple of weeks, however it is important to note that all these figures were Sunni. The Allawite core around Assad is still intact.
Also, the fact that the rebels commit atrocities on such a large scale significantly hurts their cause. In response to these atrocities, the support for Assad among ordinary citizens grows. Of course, just like the Syrian rebels, the Syrian army also commits many atrocities.
The trouble for the regime is that when they send troops to cities that are under attack by the rebels, 1st Damascus and now Aleppo, they have to withdraw forces from other cities which leaves those cities free for the rebels to expand in and use as a staging ground for further attacks.
I don’t think that we are going to see Western military intervention, at least not before the presidential elections in the United States. Getting the United States Army involved in another war would really hurt Obama’s campaign. What happens after the election depends heavily on who will become the new president. Obama and Romney have a very different opinion on intervention. Obama prefers to let regions restore their own balance of power while Romney prefers more active intervention.
NATO will probably not intervene in the months to come. When the Turkish plane got shot down by Syrian air defenses they had their chance to invoke article 5 which would categorize the shooting down as an attack on the entire alliance. This could have given them an excuse to intervene in Syria. The fact that they didn’t shows that NATO isn’t interested in active intervention at the moment.
It is going to be very interesting though how Turkey will respond to steps towards autonomy by the Kurds in northern Syria. Since the Syrian military withdrew its forces from the North, the Kurds have affiliated themselves with the PKK and taken control over cities in the north. For the Turks this seriously complicates their support for the Syrian rebels. Turkey has already said that it intends to use force against the Syrian Kurdish aspirations.
Chaos or stability
A perfect scenario for stability in Syria would be if the rebels could unite, form a single political front, topple the regime, forgive the Allawites/Christians who supported Assad and built a new Syria together. However this will never happen. There are around 100 different opposition groups (including a lot of all Qaeda fighters who want to create a Sunni force to take on the Shia)and the atrocities committed between both sides makes forgiveness very hard.
Assad stepping down to make room for a coalition of members of the old regime and members of the opposition would have the tremendous benefit that the state institutions remain intact which makes chaos less likely. However this solution will probably be unacceptable to many rebels because they reject all authority that has any connection to the old regime.
What also makes chaos more likely after the Assad regime falls is the fact that instead of the West, Turkey and the Gulf countries this time Iran will be funding rebels that will fight against the new government. It is very likely that Iran will be supporting an Allawite insurgency in Syria.
Therefore the most realistic option to create some sort of stability in Syria seems to be if the United States would start negotiating with Iran and come up with some kind of deal. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia will also have to be included in these talks but it is crucial that Iran participates because it still has a lot of influence on the Allawites in Syria. I think Iran will be more willing to negotiate now they are starting to realize that Assad’s days are numbered and they do not want chaos to spill into Iraq because this would further undermine their influence. This would also mean providing the Iranians with leverage in the negotiations about their nuclear program. However the United States will have to accept this, a Syria that explodes is much more dangerous than Iran’s nuclear program. No matter what happens we will definitely see a lot more violence between different sectarian and religious groups.
Finally I wonder what the blowback of arming the extremist rebels is going to be in the long run. When the US armed the Mujahedin in Afghanistan who were fighting against the Russians during the Cold War this really came back to haunt them when they invaded Afghanistan themselves in 2001.
What do you think is likely to happen, should happen or is worth looking out for in the time to come?