Conflict Crib Sheet And FAQ

The civil war in Syria has been escalating significantly in the coming months, and we believe that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will collapse before end-2013. Admittedly, such speculation has emerged before, only to be proven premature. However, Syrian rebels stepped up their attacks in recent months, gaining sizable portions of territory. Meanwhile, direct Western military intervention is unlikely in the near term, but we do not rule out a mission to secure Syria's chemical weapons. Below, we highlight our core views on the Syrian conflict, and what it would take to change them. We also answer some frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Core View: A Long Drawn-Out Conflict

  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to fall from power, probably sometimes in 2013. Although his regime has proved resilient, we believe that it will be very difficult for it to restore its authority after almost two years of uprising and conflict.

  • Syria's civil war could last several years. Even if Assad is removed from power, the fighting will probably continue, as we expect the minority ruling Alawite sect and other Syrian minorities (e.g. Christians and Kurds) to resist domination by the Sunni majority. In fact, there is currently speculation that the Alawite regime could consolidate power in Syria's north-western coastal region around Latakia, from which to make a last stand. In the worst-case scenario, Syria could slide into a prolonged sectarian conflict, similar to Lebanon in the 1980s.

  • Direct Western intervention against Assad's regime, along the lines of NATO action in support of anti-Qadhafi rebels in Libya, is off the cards for now. The US and its allies are reluctant to get drawn into a new Middle Eastern conflict, given elevated military costs, and Syria has a much larger military and population than Libya, making it a more formidable foe. Turkey is also reluctant to invade Syria.

  • Indirect external intervention is likely to continue, however. We expect several Western and Arab countries to step up weapons supplies and training to the Syrian rebels, thus strengthening the insurgency.

Key Risks To Our Core View

There are several factors that could change our core view:

  • The rebels control approximately half of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and commercial capital, and much of the countryside around the city. If the rebels took full control of the city, then this would be a catastrophic blow to Assad, for the rebels would have a formidable base from which to expand their reach. The war would not automatically end, but the fall of Aleppo would dramatically accelerate the departure of Assad.

  • According to the latest UN figures, the death toll in Syria reached 60,000 as of December 2012. As we believe that the crisis will continue to intensify, this could reach such a high level that core NATO states decide that they must intervene directly in some manner. In the absence of a full-scale Libya-style air campaign, the Western alliance can resort to limited airstrikes against Syrian politico-military infrastructure - although this would probably be a symbolic gesture.

  • Concerns about the security of Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles could prompt Western intervention if the Assad regime nears collapse. Such intervention would be designed to prevent the arsenals from falling into terrorist hands. Indeed, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta declared on January 9 that the United States' greatest concern remained securing chemical weapons if Assad is toppled, leaving the door open to a future US military presence. Washington could also intervene militarily under a scenario whereby Assad used chemical weapons on a large-scale against the Syrian people, a move which the US administration defined as 'crossing a red line'.

Why Has Assad Been Able To Hold Onto Power So Far?

Firstly, the Assad regime has been much more brutal than those in other 'Arab Spring' states, and has used deadly force against insurgents and civilians.

Secondly, although the Syrian military and security forces have seen significant splits and desertions - Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, the head of Syria's military police, joined the uprising on December 26, making him the latest high ranking official to switch sides during the conflict - Assad has very close allies in key military positions, thus giving him a firm grip on the security structure. This marks a key difference with Egypt and Tunisia, where the armed forces eased their presidents out of office, and Libya, where a large part of the military joined the rebellion.

Thirdly, while the Syrian rebels have been able to seize and maintain control of significant areas, particularly to the north and east of Aleppo and down the centre of the country between Idlib and Hama, they have not succeeded in establishing full control of an entire region. This is a crucial difference from the situation in Libya, where the rebels took control of the eastern region of Cyrenaica, and under cover of NATO airstrikes, launched an offensive against Tripoli in the west. However, if Aleppo fell under rebel control, the rebels would be in a strong position to advance onto the capital.

Fourthly, NATO has not intervened militarily against Assad. Most Western countries are exhausted by the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the longer-than-expected air campaign in Libya in 2011. Most European countries are wary of the financial costs of new wars, and Syria is a much more formidable foe than Libya, due to its bigger population and military.

Fifthly, the Assad regime appears to retain support. Although the regime is dominated by the Alawite minority (which forms around 12% of the population), it is also believed to have the tacit backing of other minority communities (e.g. Christians), who fear that regime change would bring hardline Islamist Sunnis to power.

Sixthly, the Assad regime has received solid backing from Russia, and to a lesser extent China, giving it a degree of diplomatic cover. Although Moscow's support has become less unconditional over recent months, the Kremlin remains reluctant to see its last ally in the Middle East toppled. Russia has commercial interests in Syria and maintains a naval facility at the port of Tartous. The Kremlin is also tired of seeing its allies toppled by 'coloured revolutions', which are perceived to be orchestrated by and for the benefit of the West. Furthermore, Iran is believed to be providing considerable military support to Assad.

What Is The Position Of Other Middle Eastern States?

Prior to the start of the anti-Assad uprising in early 2011, most Arab states and Turkey had good relations with Syria. However, the brutality of Assad's crackdown has completely alienated Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Ankara and Riyadh wish to see the departure of Assad, and favour the emergence of a Sunni-dominated regime that would re-orient Syria away from its long-standing alliance with Iran. Moreover, Turkey is also concerned that Syria's Kurds could create their own statelet in northern Syria, thus encouraging Turkey's own Kurdish minority's separatist tendencies. Finally, Ankara is increasingly worried for the security of its border with Syria. After several episodes of cross-border shelling over the past few months, Nato has begunto deploy Patriot missiles to Turkey to help its troops repel attacks. Meanwhile, Qatar too is supporting the Syrian rebels as part of its efforts to develop geopolitical influence in the Middle East.

Iran is Syria's only real ally in the Middle East, and vice-versa. Tehran would certainly rue the downfall of Assad, for this would leave it even more isolated in the region and disrupt Iran's ability to project power and influence through a Shi'a corridor to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran will continue supporting Assad by providing weapons, but excessively close identification with the Assad regime could make it harder for Tehran to develop good relations with Damascus in a putative post-Assad era.

Iraq is watching the Syrian conflict warily. Baghdad's Shi'a-dominated government fears that a Sunni victory in Syria could embolden Iraq's own once-powerful but disenfranchised Sunnis to stage a new uprising, leading to a renewed sectarian conflict.

Israel has long regarded Syria as a major enemy, but at the same time, the Assad regime has been a known and generally predictable quantity. Although Israel would welcome the collapse of the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance, it fears that the emergence of a Sunni Islamist regime in Syria could bring new security risks. Another major concern is that Syria could collapse into complete chaos, allowing its huge arsenal of weapons (including chemical arms) to flow to terrorist groups. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on January 9 that Israel will erect a security fence along its border with Syria, in order to defend the country from terrorist attacks.

More broadly, Syria's neighbours - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Turkey - all fear that a full-scale collapse of the Assad regime could lead to an intensified civil war and substantial refugee flows, as well as the spread of weapons and other illegal goods to their territory. According to UN data, the total number of registered Syrian refugees and individuals awaiting registration was 609,877 as of January 9. Turkey has received more than 150,000 Syrian refugees, with Lebanon taking in nearly 140,000, and Jordan nearly 130,000 people.

How Is Lebanon Being Affected By The Syrian Crisis?

Lebanon's political environment has been the most affected by the Syrian crisis, and the country is arguably the most at risk of experiencing a prolonged period of instability as a result of the conflict. This is due to Lebanon's diverse ethnic make-up and entrenched confessional political system, and is also because of the current composition of the coalition government, which is backed by Hizbullah's March 8 coalition - a key ally of the Assad regime. Tensions between Sunni and Shi'a communities in Lebanon have risen noticeably over the past few months, with the northern city of Tripoli and capital Beirut both seeing gun battles break out between rival sectarian factions. Given the sectarian aspects of Syria's crisis, there is a growing risk that the steady peace which has prevailed in Lebanon over the past several years may come undone as loyalties between the country's different religious communities are increasingly put to the test.

What Is The Status Of The Syrian Opposition?

The armed Syrian opposition is not a unified fighting force. Although the Free Syrian Army (FSA), headquartered in Turkey, functions as an umbrella organisation linking some of the major militias, several insurgent groups, especially those composed by fighters with a Jihadist mindset, are increasingly operating independently from the FSA.

The Syrian opposition's ability to take ground from the Syrian armed forces is increasing. Rebels conquered the town of Halfaya in central Syria and took control of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus in December. The rebels currently control about half of Aleppo and much of the countryside around the city, as well as a crescent of suburbs around the capital Damascus.

The political opposition group National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by more than 100 countries in December, including the US, France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf states. However, several radical Islamist rebel groups rejected the coalition, which will find it hard to impose its legitimacy under a scenario whereby Assad's regime falls.

Is Al-Qaeda Gaining A Foothold In Syria?

The influence of Jihadists fighters, which seek to establish an Islamic caliphate through violent means and reject the legitimacy of the modern state, is on the rise. Indeed, Jabhat Nusra, a local Jihadist organisation with important links with al-Qaeda, has reportedly become the most effective of the different factions fighting the regime, and it counts approximately 5,000 fighters. According to the US State Department, al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks in major city centres including Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr. In December, the group launched two of its most ambitious operations occupying parts of a military base near Aleppo and claiming responsibility for a coordinated suicide and car bomb attack on the heavily guarded Interior Ministry in the capital. While extremist militants are still a minority compared to the total number of rebels, they are reportedly better armed and better funded than the majority of anti-government fighters. As a result, the risks associated with sending lethal aid to the insurgency is increasing steadily.

What Is The Condition Of The Syrian Economy?

We forecast Syria's economy to contract by 3.4% in 2013, before returning to growth of 2.0% in 2014. Political instability and international isolation will hinder private consumption, depress exports and investment, and constrain government revenues. As falling exports and tourism cut Syria's foreign currency earnings, the country's stock of foreign reserves will come under pressure. Reserves dropped by 22.2% between December 2010 and July 2011 (the latest month with available data), and they are clearly being depleted further. As long as political instability and international isolation continue, the country's economic performance will remain weak.

What If Assad Leaves Office?

The Assad family has led Syria since 1970, and is thus virtually synonymous with the regime and its power structures. Even if Assad himself, or his wider family, stepped down or went into exile, Syria would at least temporarily still be led by the minority Alawite Shi'a sect, and this would be unacceptable to the Sunni majority. Therefore, some form of conflict would continue, at least until Syria established a new framework that empowers the Sunnis.

Indeed, our core view is that the sudden power vacuum created by Assad's departure triggers intensified conflict between Syria's ethnic groups, especially if law and order breaks down and weapons flow into the hands of competing organisations. The scene would then be set for a prolonged sectarian civil war.

What If The Assad Regime Survives?

It is difficult to see the Assad regime retaining power after the uprising. Nonetheless, if the Assad regime survives, we would expect Syria to remain isolated from the region, similar to Iraq under Saddam Hussein from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to his overthrow by the US invasion in 2003. Although Syria would receive residual support from Russia and Iran, on the whole the country would remain an international pariah.

Key Research

What If The Assad Regime Survives? 6 March 2012

Russian And Chinese Motivations In Focus; 19 June 2012

Tlas' Defection Significant, But Not Decisive; 9 July 2012

Control Of Capital Necessary But Not Sufficient For Regime Change; 24 July 2012

Syria's Chemical Weapons A Major Wild Card; 25 July 2012

Conflict Escalating As Jihadists Gain Influence; 28 September 2012

External Pressure Mounting On Damascus; 12 October 2012

Long-Term Political Outlook - 'Post-Assad' Era Likely To Increase Instability; 26 November 2012

Regime Closer To Collapse, But War Will Go On; 7 December 2012


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