Assessing the near-term prospects as Syria enters post-Assad era

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By Brian M Downing

In recent weeks the Assad government has lost control of more cities and border checkpoints. Its army is unable or unwilling to retake them.

The Kurdish people to the east, though divided on their political future, are slipping out of Damascus’s authority – and with them, much of the country’s limited oil wealth.

Syrian refugees cross from Syria to Turkey by the Orontes river, near the village of Hacipasa, Turkey, Saturday, Dec. 8. / Manu Brabo / AP

There are several scenarios for the country, but none of them sees much chance that the present regime can continue to govern the country as it once existed.

One option, much in the news recently, is to use chemical weapons against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and cities under its control. This, however, is unlikely.

The FSA does not operate in large units that would be vulnerable to chemical weapons. Using them in cities would be a shocking human rights violation that would force Russia and China to reevaluate support for Assad and likely lead to immediate retaliation from Turkish or NATO air strikes on chemical weapons sites, air bases, and command-control centers. Assad himself would be a target, as was Qadhafi in Libya last year. Further, orders to use such weapons would lead many in the Syrian army to refuse them or desert, either on moral grounds or the sobering assessment that anyone culpable of such an act would face harsh justice at the hands of a judge or mob.

Facing protracted civil war and national disintegration, the Syrian army may stage a coup d’état, ousting Assad and proclaiming a “national unity government.” This would be difficult to bring about. Most authoritarian regimes, Assad’s among them, ensure that key military commands are in the hands of family members and trusted friends, not professional soldiers with national interests at heart.

The Assad regime originated in a military coup and it took steps to see that another could not happen. Further, the Sunni majority population and their military forces are unlikely to accept a new government so constituted.

The tide is with the rebels and the examples of Egypt and Yemen demonstrate that changes at the top do not ensure meaningful change.

The Assad government may seek to salvage something of their control of the country by retreating to an Alawite/Shia redoubt and establishing a rump state or autonomous region there. The Mediterranean coastal region would be the most promising place as it has the highest proportion of Alawite/Shia people, it lies near Alawite/Shia parts of Lebanon and Turkey, and its ports offer reliable lines of communication to Russian and Iranian allies.

This scenario could be part of a negotiated settlement: Some in Turkey might see it as the swiftest end to turmoil on its borders and a way to prevent an influx of millions of Alawite/Shia refugees; the U.S. and EU might support it as the swiftest path to regional stability; Russia and Iran will almost certainly support it as a way to salvage a modicum of influence in the region.

Considerable opposition to a redoubt will exist as well. Syrian rebels will see such a region as a place for the Assad regime to reconstitute itself, play upon divisions inside the rest of Syria, and one day reassert control over the country.

Outside forces, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, want Shia/Iranian influence eliminated from Syria root and branch, and they see no need to sacrifice long-term strategic interests for an expeditious end to the fighting. There would also be opposition from some in the Turkish government as an Alawite/Shia redoubt introduces the principle of fragmentation of sovereignty.

That would encourage Syrian Kurds to follow suit and pursue ties with Kurdish Iraq. This in turn would encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey – a dreaded prospect in Ankara as it portends the loss of a large swathe of the country.

Finally, the Assad government may continue the war largely as is, using air strikes on rebel forces and the cities they control. This will reduce casualties and strains on the Syrian army, which is battered down and demoralized after a year of fighting, the last six months of which have been loss after loss.

Assad may hope that continued stalemate in the regions he continues to control will lead to war-weariness in the public, fissures in the Free Syrian Army, and disaffection among the rebels’ foreign supporters.

However, this strategy is unlikely to yield the desired effects nor can it be conducted for a protracted period. The Syrian army has been losing ground rapidly in recent months and will likely face large-scale desertions, if not mutinies.

Assad’s grasp has been slipping steadily since the popular uprising shifted from peaceful protest to armed uprising a year ago. It is increasingly clear that neither he nor his regime can continue to govern.

The FSA is simply too numerous and well supported, both internally and internationally.  Attention is shifting to a post–Assad country which unfortunately may be as convoluted and violent as the ongoing uprising.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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