June 7, 2013

June 7, 2013 | Commentary on

On Syria's Menu: the Bad, the Ugly

It has been conventional wisdom for a while now that the Syrian civil war — lasting two-plus years and claiming perhaps nearly 100,000 lives — would end in the fall of the Bashar Assad regime.

Time to think again.

For the moment, the reported entering of Hez-bollah, Iranian and Iraqi (Shia) fighters into the fray has shifted the sands of victory once again in favor of pro-government forces.

It’s entirely possible that the more than 40-year old Assad political dynasty might survive the rebel uprising.

Of course, there’s always been plenty of reason to worry about what a rebel victory might mean — considering that Islamists, foreign fighters and al-Qaeda allies (such as the Nusra Front) fill their ranks.

A post-Assad Syria might look a lot like post-Gadhafi Libya: various Islamist militias and terror groups running rampant, carving out spheres of influence — and that’s not to mention the trouble they might cause beyond Syria’s borders.

But the serious problem of a rebel victory aside, what’s the outlook if the Assad regime endures? That picture isn’t pretty.

The good news, if there is any, is that Damascus will be severely weakened in the short term. The Assad regime won’t have many international friends, government coffers will be drained and its armed forces will be exhausted.

This means that they probably won’t go looking for a fight with neighbors such as Israel or Turkey, which would be in much better shape militarily for any sort of engagement.

Now, the bad news.

This will be a regime hell-bent on wreaking revenge on its foes, including the rebels, those who supported them, sympathized with them or even those who sat on the fence as the battle raged. Lots of blood will be shed.

This retaliation by the ruling Assad Alawites will be seen in the Middle East as Shia-on-Sunni violence, raising tensions across the region. As a result, you can expect a rebel movement to operate in the Syrian shadows, snuffing out more lives.

Refugee flows out of the country will increase beyond the million or so already displaced. Reports estimate that 10 percent of Jordan’s population is Syrian refugees; it’s pushing the U.S.-friendly country to the brink.

In the longer term, it’s almost certain the Assad regime will seek to
(re)start its nuclear (weapons) program to ensure it never looks vulnerable to outside powers again. North Korea and Iran will pitch in.

Assad will also look to make life “unpleasant” for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, the European Union and the United States, even though Team Obama has tried desperately to avoid involvement. Syria will remain a top state sponsor of terror.

Others will benefit from an Assad victory, of course, bringing more unpleasant news. Iran will keep its only ally in the region. Hezbollah will get help in its efforts to dominate Lebanon and target Israel. The Russians will keep a toehold in the Middle East.

The battle for Syria isn’t over — maybe far from it. With good outcomes a probable mirage, we should be preparing for the range of less than optimum endings, including the chance the current regime prevails.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in Boston Herald.