The conflict in Syria has been deadlocked for some time, but the momentum appears to have shifted in favour of the rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad has proved more resilient than expected, but we believe he will lose power, sooner or later. Meanwhile, direct Western military intervention is unlikely in the near term, but we do not rule out the imposition of a no-fly zone or 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, sooner or later, and quite possibly before the end of 2012. Although his regime has proved resilient, we believe that it will be very difficult for it to restore its authority after 18 months of uprising and conflict. However, the timing of Assad's exit is impossible to call.
- Syria's conflict 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, especially ahead of American elections in November 2012, and given that the Syrian rebels are still weaker than their Libyan counterparts. In addition, 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:
- Assad could suddenly be removed from office as a result of assassination or an internal coup. This could usher in an interim regime that would pave the way for a transition to a democratic (or at least more representative) political system, without the need for extended conflict.
- If the rebels take control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and commercial capital, 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.
- Eventually, the death toll intensity or humanitarian crisis in Syria could reach such a high level that core NATO states decide that they must intervene directly in some manner. Already, there are calls for a no-fly zone in Syria. 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. Meanwhile, NATO might also intervene militarily if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against its own citizens.
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. The death toll in Syria is believed to exceed 18,000.
Secondly, Assad retains the support of the Syrian military, and the latter has seen only limited splits or desertions - although as of August 2012, the quality of regime defectors has increased and now include former Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas and former prime minister Riad Hijab. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces eased their presidents out of office. In the case of Libya, a large part of the military joined the rebellion, and in Yemen, the military also showed signs of internal splits. Assad has very close allies in key military positions, thus giving him a firm grip on the security structure.
Thirdly, the Syrian rebels have been unable to seize and maintain control of significant territory, which could serve as a base from which to launch a move towards Damascus. 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) and even middle class Sunnis (Sunnis form around 75% of the population), who fear that regime change would bring hardline Islamist Sunnis to power, to the detriment of their own status.
Sixthly, the Assad regime has received solid backing from Russia, and to a lesser extent China, giving it a degree of diplomatic cover. Moscow in particular is 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 worried 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. An additional concern for Turkey is that Syria's Kurds could create their own statelet in northern Syria, thus encouraging Turkey's own Kurdish minority's separatist tendencies. 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.
More broadly, Syria's neighbours - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, 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. As of August 2012, almost 147,000 refugees had fled Syria, while the number of internally displaced was around 1.5 million. Turkey has received more than 50,000 Syrian refugees, with Jordan taking in nearly 46,000, and Lebanon nearly 37,000 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 since the start of May 2012, 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?
Although the armed Syrian opposition is not a unified fighting force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), headquartered in Turkey, functions as an umbrella organisation linking some of the major militias. Three of Syria's most effective militias include the Khalid bin Walid Brigade near Homs, the Harmoush Battalion in the northern Jebel al-Zawiya mountains, and the Omari Battalion in Dera'a province.
The Syrian opposition's ability to take ground from the Syrian armed forces is increasing. Several reports show that the rebels' external supply lines to replenish their arms and ammunition have strengthened. In addition, the rebels' growing ability to produce roadside bombs capable of disabling the government's tanks has considerably weakened Assad's forces. The rebels have been able to control increasing portions of territory, although they have not managed to conquer key urban areas such as Aleppo and Damascus.
Finding a credible political partner amongst Syria's opposition is difficult for the West, because relations between the Syrian National Council (the most well known of Syria's opposition groups) and the FSA are weak. Although the armed opposition often cooperates with members of Syria's grassroots opposition, this is loosely organised on the ground. As a result, the emergence of a centralised political control structure is unlikely for the time being.
Is Al-Qaeda Gaining A Foothold In Syria?
A series of car bombs which struck Damascus and Aleppo from December 2011 to February 2012 raised concerns about the entry of al-Qaeda into Syria's crisis, as US intelligence officials believe the attacks were conducted by an al-Qaeda affiliate. In addition, al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a video in February 2012 in which he formally backed Syria's armed opposition.
According to US officials, al-Qaeda has recently advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria, and is building a network of well-organised cells. Already at least 200 militants linked to the global Islamist organisation have entered the country, with their numbers increasing every day. While the presence of extremist militants is minimal 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 will increase.
What Is The Condition Of The Syrian Economy?
We forecast Syria's economy to contract by 4.3% in 2012 after a 14% ( BMI estimate) drop in 2011. Political instability and international isolation will hinder private consumption, depress exports and investment, and constrain government revenues. In addition, the Syrian pound has lost 40.6% of its value against the US dollar since March 2011. As falling exports and tourism cut Syria's foreign currency earnings, the country's stock of foreign reserves is 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 future of a post-Assad Syria would depend on the manner in which Assad left 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.
The bigger risk 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 full-scale sectarian civil war. For the outside world, a key concern would be the fate of Syria's chemical weapons.
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. However, Syria would receive residual support from Russia and Iran. Eventually, Turkey and key Arab states could quietly re-establish contacts with Syria, but on the whole the country would remain an international pariah.
Long-Term Political Outlook - Mounting Challenges Over The Coming Decade; 10 June 2010
What If Assad's Regime Falls? Scenarios Assessed; 11 May 2011
Turkey Facing Increasing Risks From Syria; 6 July 2011
Emerging Implications Of The Escalating Crisis; 7 February 2012
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