The Uncertainties of a Post-Assad Syria

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Many outsiders believe the country would fall into chaos, but this could be false.

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Syrians in Lebanon rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad / Reuters

With all the discussion of diplomacy (and its limits) and the robust debate about military action in Syria, the issue that haunts both is the nature of post-Assad Syria.  Will Syria end up like Iraq?  Like Lebanon of the 1970s-1980s?  Both countries have suffered much from sectarian and ethnic differences that politicians have manipulated for their own ends.  Or might Syria suffer far worse? Such has been the commentary about what might befall Syrians in a world without the Assad regime.  Few observers have looked at the deeply divided Syrian opposition without a credible leader and declared that post-Assad Syria will be a better place at least in the short run.  It is all about Sunni-Alawi bloodletting, especially.  I have come to support international action in Syria, but the big unknowns of post-Assad Syria--the political, ethnic, and sectarian dynamics--give me pause.

To be sure, the narrative that Syria will automatically fall into communal conflict is to varying degrees the product of a particular strain of Western thought about the Middle East in which Arabs, released from the grip of authoritarianism, are fated to play out some kind of primordial bloodlust.  Isn't it possible that this scenario is wrong, though?  Remember Syria's coming anarchy after Hafiz al Assad died?  Even though everyone knew there would a be family succession, there was nevertheless supposed to be bloodletting as the Sunni majority, including the Muslim Brotherhood, would exact revenge on the Alawis at a moment of regime weakness.  In reality, the transition from Hafiz to Bashar was relatively smooth.  To be fair, the transition was planned well in advance and the elder Assad made sure that his loyal old guard would ensure the dynasty.  Still, isn't it possible that observers are engaged in some ethnic/sectarian conflict overshooting?  In summary, because Iraq descended into strife after the U.S. invasion and Lebanon's well-known history of communal violence, it only stands to reason that Syria will do the same after Assad.  This seems to me intuition--perhaps good intuition--but nevertheless a hunch.  If Syria is not Libya then it may not be Iraq either. I haven't read anything about what is going on in Syria that tells me the probability of ethnic and sectarian conflict, yet all the analyses seem to take it as a given.  Social scientists are starting to develop tools like agent based modeling that can tell us something about the "futures" of states, but at present no one actually knows what will happen in Syria.

If Syria is fated to a violent future in a post-Assad period, why bother with all the "Bashar must go" rhetoric and diplomatic maneuverings?  After all, Hafiz al Assad's greatest legacy was to bring stability to a country that had known nothing but political intrigue, coups, and counter-coups since the 1940s.  And before independence in 1941, French imperial policy expressly favored minorities at the expense of the Sunni core.  Indeed, if the country needs a strongman to hold it together and thereby avoid mass violence, then shouldn't that be the policy of the international community? After all, even if there is some sort of managed transition along the lines of that which the Arab League or now Turkey have floated, that development negates neither Syria's ethnic and sectarian fault lines nor the predicted conflict that flows from them.

The point here is not to justify international intervention or inaction.  Rather, it is to tease out the logic and logical flaws in arguments made for or against intervention.  In the end, the risks of military action or continued diplomatic pressure remain largely in the realm of considered opinion.  Thus far, no one on either side of the debate has been able impose their will on the other, which says something about the quality of the debate.  That said, no one has effectively answered the two questions at the heart of the matter:  How many deaths are necessary to switch the cost-benefit analysis of intervention vs. non-intervention?  Are the risks of international action worth the alleged strategic benefits of the end of the Assad regime and all the unknowns that entails?  I have my own hunches, but I don't know for sure.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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