Conflict Scenarios Point To Turbulent Decade Ahead

BMI View: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are fighting for their survival, but regardless of whether it endures or is overthrown, Syria is likely to remain highly unstable for many years to come.

As of September 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba'ath party regime are fighting for their survival after two years and half of civil conflict, which has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, two million refugees and four million internally displaced people. The conflict long ago assumed sectarian characteristics, given that the Assad regime hails from the Alawite Shi'a sect (which forms around XX% of the population), whereas the rebels are mainly drawn from the Sunni majority (around 74% of the population). Caught between the Alawites and Sunni Arabs are significant minorities of Christians, Kurds, and other ethnicities, who fear that their positions would be jeopardised if the Assad regime were to collapse.Even if Assad manages to cling on power over the coming quarters, we believe the regime will have been substantially weakened, and it is unlikely to regain full control of the country (Note: when we refer to 'regime', this need not necessarily entail Assad as president. It could be led by a transitional figure with the bulk of the state's other top officials remaining in situ.). However, prospects for a negotiated settlement or an outright victory by the opposition also appear unlikely at this stage. Overall, we reiterate our view that Syria will remain highly unstable for many years to come.

Below, we outline the main scenarios for political change.

BMI View: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are fighting for their survival, but regardless of whether it endures or is overthrown, Syria is likely to remain highly unstable for many years to come.

As of September 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba'ath party regime are fighting for their survival after two years and half of civil conflict, which has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, two million refugees and four million internally displaced people. The conflict long ago assumed sectarian characteristics, given that the Assad regime hails from the Alawite Shi'a sect (which forms around XX% of the population), whereas the rebels are mainly drawn from the Sunni majority (around 74% of the population). Caught between the Alawites and Sunni Arabs are significant minorities of Christians, Kurds, and other ethnicities, who fear that their positions would be jeopardised if the Assad regime were to collapse.Even if Assad manages to cling on power over the coming quarters, we believe the regime will have been substantially weakened, and it is unlikely to regain full control of the country (Note: when we refer to 'regime', this need not necessarily entail Assad as president. It could be led by a transitional figure with the bulk of the state's other top officials remaining in situ.). However, prospects for a negotiated settlement or an outright victory by the opposition also appear unlikely at this stage. Overall, we reiterate our view that Syria will remain highly unstable for many years to come.

Below, we outline the main scenarios for political change.

Outright Assad Victory: Assad's regime has proved significantly more resilient than we had originally expected. Its superior military capabilities vis-a-vis the opposition, coupled with continued military and financial support from Russia, Iran and Lebanese Shi'a militant organisation Hizbullah, have helped it maintain control of Syria's major city centres and large swathes of the country. We cannot preclude a scenario whereby the regime manages to regain control of most of Syria's territory. It is possible that Western countries and the Gulf will eventually reduce their support for the rebels, and an increasingly divided opposition may find itself unable to maintain control of the territory it has conquered. This scenario appears unlikely at this stage. The uprising has exposed the vulnerability of the regime, and the armed opposition has taken over large swathes of the country, particularly in the north and the east. Even if the regime undertakes significant territorial gains, a powerful insurgency would likely remain active, ensuring that prospects for long-term political stability remain grim. In the event that the Assad regime retains control of and restores broad stability to Syria's core areas, Syria could find itself in a similar position to Iraq under Saddam Hussein between the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003. In other words, Syria would essentially be a complete pariah state under economic sanctions and subject to both internal and external plots to remove Assad. This outcome could well lead to a new uprising to unseat Assad, this time from within the Alawite community, or a palace coup by military and Ba'ath party leaders, for the purposes of normalizing relations with the rest of the world.

Negotiated Settlement: External actors could ultimately succeed in brokering a political solution in Syria, perhaps under the aegis of the UN. Although such a solution appears unviable over the short term, we cannot preclude that the regime and the opposition could over time decide that a negotiated settlement is preferable to endless conflict. However, the putative peace process would be fraught with difficulties. For one, there would be virtually no chance of Assad being rehabilitated by the West, given that he is ultimately blamed for more than 100,000 deaths in Syria's civil war since 2011. Moreover, the opposition is deeply divided, and it is highly unlikely that a political body representing the rebels would be accepted by all the relevant factions fighting against the regime. Finally, a constitution making process balancing different ethnicities and political groups could be exceedingly difficult. Ultimately, such a process could result in a fragile quasi-federal solution along sectarian lines - with Kurds, Sunni and Shi'te administering their own statelets - or the outright partition of the country. In this scenario, 'post-war' Syria could come to resemble Bosnia-Herzegovina after 1995, when the country was maintained as a single state, but with a weak federal government and separate entities for the Bosnian Muslim, Croat, and Serb communities. That said, the Bosnian peace deal required enforcement by 60,000 NATO troops, and we doubt that the alliance would be willing to commit ground troops to Syria. Although Bosnia remains unstable, the Dayton Accords demonstrated that it was possible to bring peace to a country wracked by a four-year war in which 100,000 people were killed and unspeakable atrocities were committed. Bosnia has now seen 18 years of peace. The problem for Syria in emulating Bosnia is that Bosnia had a higher level of economic development and the anchor of NATO and the EU, while Syria lacks these anchors.

Outright Rebel Victory And Regime Collapse: Following a long period of instability during which Syria's rebels are armed and trained by the West and other Arab countries, the opposition could achieve an outright victory against the regime. Such a scenario could be facilitated by a military intervention by Western countries, or by some of Assad's key allies deciding to curtail their support to the regime. However, given the highly fragmented state of the Syrian opposition, it is highly unlikely to see a stable polity being shaped. The experience of neighbouring Iraq showed that when a highly repressive regime in power for 35 years collapses (albeit under foreign invasion), anarchy and near-civil war follow suit, with the latter triggered by sectarian violence. Syria's sizeable minorities could turn on each other, ensuring that the country experiences years of instability before a form of centralised government is restored. In addition, Assad or his successor would retain the support of a significant portion of the civilian population and the loyalty of several key military units. Therefore, even if the regime collapses, a counterinsurgency would likely develop. Indeed, the remnants of the Alawite regime could maintain power in one of its current strongholds, such as the Syria's north-western coastal region around Latakia, from which to make a last stand. In the event that the Assad regime collapses, and Syria slides into complete chaos, there would be a high risk that Syria could become a 'new Afghanistan' on the Eastern Mediterranean. Radical Islamist Sunni militants are believed to be the strongest elements of the anti-Assad resistance, and once the Assad regime has gone, their presence in Syria could result in large parts of the country becoming training grounds for terrorists.

Extended Stalemate: Although Assad's regime has made some significant territorial and strategic gains since the beginning of 2013, rebels maintain control of large swathes of the country. The current level of violence suggests that neither the government nor the opposition are willing to end the fighting anytime soon. A similar situation could continue for many years, in a scenario potentially similar to the Lebanese civil war, a multifaceted conflict which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Eventually, the conflict may die down as the willingness to fight and the capabilities of the different factions slowly evaporate. This could lead to some form of negotiated settlement, with potential for a constitutional make up or partition of the country. Under such scenario, high levels of violence and refugee outflows would remain elevated, while any subsequent peace process could be fragile and prone to reversals.

Conclusion

All of the above scenarios are within the realms of plausibility, in our view, and not necessarily mutually exclusive. The final outcome could incorporate elements of each of these scenarios. What seems certain is that regardless of whether Assad or his regime remains in power, Syria is facing a long period of conflict, and any peace that is achieved is likely to prove fragile. The fate of Syria will remain important for the region, due to its adjacency to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, and its close relationship with Iran. All these countries have a major stake in events in Syria, which has become the battleground for a proxy war between Shi'a Iran and Russia on the side of Assad, and Sunni Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the United States, on the side of the rebels.

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This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Syria, Syria
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