As the fighting in Syria intensifies, it is evident that there are four plausible outcomes. Unfortunately, most of them are rather unpleasant for both regional stability and Western values.
The following scenarios are in ascending order of probability.
The Assad regime manages to suppress the rebellion. If it had not been for outside interference, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Turkey but secondarily from the United States and its core European allies, this would have been the most likely outcome. Given that interference, though, Assad’s days appear to be numbered. The Assad family’s rule was always a fragile one, based on a tacit coalition of its Alawite followers together with Christians and other religious/ethnic minorities. That “government of the minorities” faced the daunting task of maintaining control over the majority Sunni Arab population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fund and arm their Sunni brethren, who dominate the so-called Free Syrian Army, has likely made continued rule by the Alawite-led regime untenable.
The Free Syrian Army ousts Assad and manages a transition to a multireligious, multiethnic democratic Syria. This outcome is Washington’s fondest hope, but the odds are heavily against it. Although the FSA is likely to prevail militarily—at least in most areas of the country—the emergence of a democratic political system is a long shot. Not only does Syria lack a meaningful democratic tradition, it has a weak economy and civil society. That is worrisome, since a strong economy and a vibrant civil society are important factors for a stable, tolerant, democratic system. And there are the stark religious and ethnic divisions in Syria. The combination of all of these factors makes the emergence of a democratic Syria highly unlikely.
The insurgents win a decisive victory and establish an authoritarian state. Ominously, radical Islamist elements appear to be ascendant within the insurgency, and rebel units are already engaging in practices reminiscent of Al Qaeda. That development is unsurprising since Saudi Arabia’s theocratic regime has such a prominent sponsoring role. Even if the rebels can gain and maintain control of most of the country (a very big assumption), a post-Assad Syria is more likely to be Islamist and authoritarian than democratic. Indeed, authoritarian elements seem even better positioned for victory over secular, democratic factions in Syria than they are in Iraq, Egypt and Libya—and democratic fortunes over the long term are none too good in any of those countries.
Syria fragments into religious and ethnic enclaves or ministates. Given Syria’s complex ethnic and religious composition, this is the most probable outcome. Assad’s Alawite-dominated military shows signs of trying to establish an Alawite-Christian redoubt in the western part of the country. Absent massive interference by Turkey (or the United States and principal European allies), that coalition may have enough strength to sustain such an entity. However, that development would likely be the first, not the last, stage of Syria’s fragmentation. Syria’s Kurds are already establishing armed checkpoints in the northeast, where they are most numerous. The chance to form a de facto independent Kurdish state (a la the Kurdish region in Iraq) could prove irresistible.
All of the plausible scenarios have negative implications for regional stability. Syria has already become the pawn of a nasty power play involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Assad’s continued rule would still face a simmering Sunni-led insurgency backed by both Ankara and Riyadh. Conversely, a definitive Sunni victory, whether that led to a democratic or authoritarian Syria, would provoke countermeasures by the leading Shiite power, Iran. And a fragmented Syria would be an arena for endless brass knuckles maneuvers by all of those powers.
Pundits in the West who assume that Assad’s ouster would usher in an era of stability and freedom are as delusional as they were when they made the same assumption about the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Syria and the greater region are in for a very bumpy ride. And Washington would be well-advised to stay off of that dangerous roller coaster.