Conflict Scenarios Point To Turbulent Decade Ahead

BMI View: We expect the civil war in Syria to continue for many years. A negotiated settlement following a protracted conflict or a formal break-up of the country appear at this stage the two most likely outcomes, while an outright victory by either the regime or the rebels is less probable. Under any scenario, prospects for a stabilisation of the country over the coming decade are very low.

We expect Syria's civil war to continue for the foreseeable future. As of March 2014, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba'ath party regime are holding ground after more than three years of civil conflict, which has resulted in more than 130,000 deaths, over two and half million refugees, and three and half 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 12% 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 (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).

Although Assad's regime has made some 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 is willing to end the fighting anytime soon.

Fragmentation Underway
Syria - Areas Of Control

BMI View: We expect the civil war in Syria to continue for many years. A negotiated settlement following a protracted conflict or a formal break-up of the country appear at this stage the two most likely outcomes, while an outright victory by either the regime or the rebels is less probable. Under any scenario, prospects for a stabilisation of the country over the coming decade are very low.

We expect Syria's civil war to continue for the foreseeable future. As of March 2014, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba'ath party regime are holding ground after more than three years of civil conflict, which has resulted in more than 130,000 deaths, over two and half million refugees, and three and half 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 12% 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 (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).

Although Assad's regime has made some 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 is willing to end the fighting anytime soon.

Fragmentation Underway
Syria - Areas Of Control

Below, we outline five main scenarios for political change over the coming decade.

Formal Break-Up: 40% Chance

Syria is already de facto divided into several statelets along mainly sectarian lines. The Assad regime, backed by Alawites, many Christians and some of the old Sunni elite, retains control over a strip of land in Western Syria, includ ing the capital Damascus and much of the coast. Diverse opposition forces control areas of the country stretching from the northwest to the Iraqi border, while Kurdish militias are increasingly in control of the northeast. An extended stalemate could lead to a crystallization of internal borders along similar lines, leading over the longer term to a formalised partition of the country.

While the boundaries between such putative statelets could stabilize over time, levels of violence will remain elevated for several years to come in our view. A major problem would be the governance of areas under rebel control, given deep divisions among rebel groups. Individual rebel factions could establish quasi-state entities inside the country. Under such a scenario, high levels of violence and refugee outflows would continue, with lingering risks of a major conflict taking place at a later stage. We also stress that the newly formed statelets would receive no or at best partial recognition by the international community for years to come.

Negotiated Settlement: 35% Chance

The current level of violence suggests that neither the government nor the opposition is willing to end the fighting anytime soon. This 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. We cannot preclude that the regime and the opposition could over time decide that a political solution is preferable to endless conflict. This could lead to some form of negotiated settlement, particularly should external actors ultimately succeed in brokering a political solution, perhaps under the aegis of the UN. However, the putative peace process would be fraught with difficulties. In particular, 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. A constitution-making process balancing different ethnicities and political groups could also be exceedingly difficult.

Ultimately, such a process could result in a fragile quasi-federal solution along sectarian lines - with Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'as administering their own statelets ( see scenario above). 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 at this stage. 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.

Long-term scenarios
Scenario Time Frame Likelihood Overview
Formal Break-Up 5-10 years 40% An extended stalemate leads to a partition of the country along sectarian lines.
Negotiated Settlement 5-10 years 35% The conflict dies down, and a political solution results in a quasi-federal solution along sectarian lines.
Outright Assad Victory 3-10 years 15% The regime regains control of most of Syria and the country becomes a pariah state.
Outright Rebel Victory 3-10 years 10% Opposition victory results in protracted instability before centralised government is eventually restored.
Source: BMI

Outright Assad Victory: 15% Chance

Assad's regime has proved significantly more resilient than we and other observers 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 States 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 makes 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 the regime. This outcome could well lead to a new uprising to unseat Assad or his eventual successor, 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. Even if Assad manages to cling to power over the coming years, we believe the regime will have been substantially weakened, and it is unlikely to regain full control of the country.

Outright Rebel Victory: 10% Chance

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 eventually 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. In the event that Syria slides into complete chaos, there would be a high risk that Syria could become a 'new Afghanistan' on the Eastern Mediterranean.

Prolonged Instability Ahead
MENA - Short-Term (LHS) and Long-Term Political Risk Rating

External Military Intervention Risks Lingering

Risks of 'limited' US airstrikes on Syria were elevated at the end of August 2013, owing to the Assad's regime's alleged responsibility for a major chemical attack that killed hundreds of people. Momentum for airstrikes waned following Damascus' acceptance of a Russian proposal that Syria gives up its chemical weapons and at present appetite for a military intervention by the West is very low. However, we cannot preclude that a major incident could trigger military actions over the coming years. For one, the process of dismantling the chemical weapons arsenal is proceeding behind schedule, and evidence that the Syrian regime might be deliberately delaying this or secretly keeping some of its arsenal, or evidence of another chemical attack could trigger a military response. Also, a major massacre which triggered huge international resonance, of the scale of the Srebrenica massacre perpetrated in July 1995 by the Army of the Republika Srpska against Bosnian Muslims, could trigger a Western military response. Finally, radical Islamist Sunni militants are believed to be the strongest elements of the anti-Assad resistance. Should large parts of the country become training grounds for terrorists, which is most likely in our view under our first and fourth scenarios, this could cause the West to intervene.

Conclusion

All of the above scenarios are within the realm 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. 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.

BMI's Long-Term Political Risk Ratings

Our long-term political risk rating (LTPR) for Syria stands at 22.4/100. The country scores 19.7/100 for 'characteristics of polity', which highlights the autocratic nature of the state and the virtual absence of rule of law in parts of the territory. Syria scores 25.0/100 for 'characteristics of society', reflecting extreme political polarization and deep sectarian cleavages. Syria scores 25.0/100 for 'scope of state', as the ongoing civil war is preventing the central government from controlling large swathes of the country. Syria only scores 20.0/100 for 'policy continuity', in view of significant risks of a break-up of the country over the coming years.

Syria Political Overview
System of Government Parliamentary Republic: President Elected By Referendum for seven year terms. Parliament (the 250-seat People's Council of Syria) elected for four year terms.
Head of State President Bashar al-Assad (approved by referendum in 2000 and again in 2007)
Head of Government President Bashar al-Assad (de facto), Prime Minister Wael al-Halki
Last Election Constitutional Referendum - 2012
People's Council of Syria - May 7 2012
Composition Of Current Government Council of Ministers composed of and dominated by Baath Party members
Key Figures Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar
Main Political Parties
Arab Nationalist Baath Party
Arab Socialist Union
Socialist Unionists
Communist Party of Syria
Democratic Socialist Unionist Party
Extra-Parliamentary Opposition? The Free Syrian Army (FSA), headquartered in Turkey, functions as an umbrella organisation linking some of the major militias. The Islamic Front is a merger of seven rebel groups announced in November 2013. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra front are two prominent radical Islamist militias.The Syrian National Coalition is a political coalition of Syrian opposition groups, which was founded in Qatar in November 2012.
Next Election Parliamentary - 2016
Presidential - May 2014
Ongoing Disputes Israel (currently occupying the Golan Heights, accuses Syria of supporting anti-Israeli terrorist groups including Hamas and Hizbullah); Lebanon (Government accuses Syria of being behind several political assassinations including that of Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 and prolonging the domestic unrest); US (Removed its ambassador in 2005, imposed sanctions relating to Hariri assassination and other Syrian policies, removed ambassador again in 2011); Historically hostile relations with Saudi Arabia, hostile relations with most Gulf states (especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and with most western countries since the beginning of the crisis.
Key Relations/ Treaties Strong relations with Iran, Russia and the Lebanese shi'a militant group Hizbullah
BMI Short-Term Political Risk Rating 24.6
BMI Structural Political Risk Rating 22.4
Source: BMI

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Geography: Syria
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