Syria after Assad

The president's fall would not end the war. It would merely shift the balance.

July’s stunning blows to the Assad regime—a bomb attack that killed several key members of his inner circle and a massive rebel offensive in areas across the country—have prompted redoubled efforts to plan for its collapse. Calls for intervention grow louder, and the United States reportedly has abandoned its diplomatic campaign against Assad in favor of preparing for, and hastening, his fall. The word “endgame” is spread liberally over editorial pages and magazine covers. However, as any chess player will tell you, sometimes the endgame is just the beginning—and sometimes the endgame doesn’t end with a win.

Much outside thought about the Syrian conflict has relied upon a liberation narrative: Assad is the oppressor; the people are the oppressed; they are rising to overthrow him. The story is presumed to end with Assad’s fall. There is no doubt that Assad is a loathsome dictator, but the truth is messier.

A unified Syrian people does not exist—the society is shot through with sectarian and ethnic divisions which would make stable governance difficult in any context, and the current conflict is making that all but impossible. Syria’s non-Sunni peoples have long feared that Sunni Islamists will overthrow the secular government and oppress them. This fear has led to crackdowns on Sunnis, the most famous being the destruction of the city of Hama in 1982. Alawites in the intelligence services and upper echelons of the military have overseen a campaign that began with mass arrests and torture but now has shells falling on cities and tanks in the streets. Alawite men of the Shabiha, common criminals in peacetime but militiamen in war, have committed truly unspeakable acts. Young men in cities the regime has conquered are often killed, regardless of their political affiliation. Their bodies are sometimes dismembered and burned. Captured opposition fighters face a similar grim fate.

Despite protestations that they are inclusive and nonsectarian, it is difficult to imagine opposition fighters completely resisting the temptation to seek revenge for these horrendous acts to which they and their kinsmen have been subjected. There already have been reports of abuses by the opposition, including kidnappings, forced confessions and executions. This will feed the fears of Alawites and Christians. So will reports of Islamist fighters operating in parallel to the Free Army; some reportedly are better armed and better funded than the non-Islamist forces. We should not discount the danger of another situation such as the one in Mali’s breakaway Azawad region, where a similar imbalance between local rebels and internationally funded extremists has led to the formation of a terrorist haven.

The Assad regime has stoked sectarian fears eagerly to challenge the liberation narrative, reportedly paying Alawite government employees to put up anti-Alawite and anti-Christian graffiti and depicting the entire rebellion as Islamist: rebels have complained that the state trumpets images of bearded fighters as proof of fundamentalism, even though for some fighters the beard is proof of the inconvenience of shaving in the field. One young guerilla joked to the L.A. Times, “We're going to start fighting with a bottle of whiskey in our hand, just so the world sees we're not Al Qaeda.” Extremist or not, rebels entering Alawite and Christian communities will be seen as harbingers of tyranny and massacre, not freedom.