SHOULD SYRIAN president Bashar al-Assad fall, Syria’s problems will have only just begun. With the dictator gone, crime, score settling and a violent contest for power likely will ensue, keeping the streets unsafe and the people afraid. Iran, foreign jihadists and Syria’s neighbors may meddle to protect their interests or stir up trouble. Assad kept Syria’s rival communities in check through force, but his reign created underlying schisms. Now, the civil war has generated new ones. It also has turned the country’s economy, always struggling, into a disaster area. So far the splintered Syrian opposition has shown no skill in reassuring Syria’s minorities, and any new government’s initial legitimacy is likely to be weak.
Unlike other Arab Spring conflicts that have resulted in regime capitulation (Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) or regime decapitation (Libya), the long and bloody Syrian conflict is likely to generate a failed state requiring the kind of large-scale reconstruction efforts seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, some will call for America to step in to establish order. The United States has a long and rather ugly record in trying to help countries in Syria’s position. True, in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States has gained hard experience in the dos and (mostly) don’ts of state building. But the lessons from these and other state-building efforts suggest success requires considerable resources, excellent coordination within the government, long-term follow-through and serious planning for the postconflict period even as the war is being waged. None of these is likely to be present for any U.S. effort in a post-Assad Syria, given the current political and operational environment.
We argue here that the United States and its allies are unlikely to overcome Syria’s myriad problems and establish a peaceful, stable and democratic Syria. The likely lack of resources, poor governmental coordination and the sheer scale of Syria’s problems probably would spell failure for any ambitious efforts. Moreover, regime-change initiatives could backfire and complicate postregime plans.
Thus, going in small may be the best we can manage. The results also would be small, but being present in some capacity would offer the United States more credibility in supporting regional democracy, greater legitimacy to weigh in on key regional issues and a better strategic position to counter potential threats to U.S. interests. Still, Washington should prepare not only for a limited state-building mission but also for the possible failure of state building in Syria.
This article has four sections. First, we detail the problems Syria is likely to face should Assad fall. Next, we review the potentialrole of outsiders such as the United States in ameliorating these difficulties. Third, we discuss actual U.S. and allied capabilities and their likely problems and limits. Finally, we offer recommendations for a limited engagement in Syria and assess the probable impact of such an engagement.
ASSAD HAS ruled Syria by brute force: he hollowed out the country’s institutions, making a mockery of political parties, the judiciary, the media and other core parts of a functioning state. Now the civil war has destroyed cities and turned Syrian against Syrian. It follows that bringing peace to Syria involves more than toppling Assad; any new regime must also rebuild the state and mend the nation.
The current antiregime violence could morph into chaos or a new power struggle among the anti-Assad victors. The Syrian opposition is famously disunited. Despite having its back against the wall in the anti-Assad struggle, and foreign encouragement to unify, the opposition remains divided by region, ethnicity and political ambitions. No Nelson Mandela of South Africa or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar unites the rebels. Once Assad goes, these groups may come together through a democratic process, but it is far more likely that any near-term elections would be dubious affairs and that at least some of those fighting Assad would turn their guns on each other.
Assad’s divide-and-rule methods and favoritism toward key groups will make continued strife even more likely. Favored minorities, particularly the Alawites but also the Christians and Druze, will want to keep what they have. Poorer, disempowered Sunni Muslims, who are doing the bulk of the fighting (and dying) and comprise the largest community in Syria, will want more power and wealth. Score settling against regime servants is likely to commence almost immediately. Just as the Assad regime has mobilized the Alawites in militias to murder other communities, opposition forces will want payback. If a new government reflects the will of the majority of Syrians, it may openly discriminate against Alawites and other minorities and exclude those Sunnis, small in number but powerful, who cooperated with Assad.
In Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell, crime—even more than political violence—led to national collapse. Similarly, in Syria armed gangs masquerading as freedom fighters capture wealthy and middle-class citizens, demanding ransom or bribes before freeing them. One Aleppo resident told the New York Times, “Chaos, lawlessness, fear, it is just so chaotic, and with all the thugs in the streets, you never know who might kidnap you and ask for a ransom.” Such problems may grow exponentially as Syria’s police, tainted by their association with Assad, will likely prove incapable of enforcing order and preventing massive looting or other crime.