The Lebanonization of Syria means the latter could face a long period of instability and rivalry among sectarian, tribal, and other competitors for power, resources, and status.
By David B. Kanin
There still is no indication when the conflict in Syria will abate (much less end), what kind of political mosaic will replace the brutal Assad regime, and how much further violence Syrians will suffer after the dictator is gone. What does seem likely is that internal and international actors will remain divided, mutually suspicious, and unable to come to terms on a succession they all can live with. There is little reason to believe that either the self-entitled figures posturing outside the country as a government in waiting nor the various on-the-ground militias are yet able to overawe or co-opt each other.
The Lebanonization of Syria means the latter could face a long period of instability and rivalry among sectarian, tribal, and other competitors for power, resources, and status. What will pass for a Syrian state will at best provide a venue for negotiation among notables over how they will structure personal and patronage rivalries. At worst, whatever passes for government in Damascus will resemble the dysfunctional, violent politics of post-1981 Somalia. In any case, the complex regional dynamic in Syria’s neighborhood means that the each twist in Syria’s immediate future will have significant strategic impact.
Various diplomatic efforts to shape and give legal blessing to a successor government made up of émigrés and defectors from the regime are likely to have even less success than the attempt to preserve Yugoslavia in 1990-2. In the Balkans, at first there at least remained something of a Yugoslav structure to work with, and “legitimate,” if weak federal actors to support. Even as the Federation died and international diplomacy faltered, in wake of their Cold War triumph the American and European overseers could exude pride and confidence, and so could posture as being less uncertain than they actually were then and clearly are today.
The lethal competition for space and resources in Syria does not organize itself around territories as easily identified and distinguished from each other as the Tito-era lines arbitrarily blessed by international diplomacy and – later – uncontested military occupation. The latter, which was relatively easy to impose in a collapsing Yugoslavia, not only would be much bloodier in the former Syria, but would face the possibility of outright failure.
Where things stand
Assad is finished as ruler of a coherent Syria, but for a time will remain an important actor capable of shaping the next stages of conflict. He and his Alawite community may be coming to the point of deciding whether or not to fight to the end, rather than cede pride of place to various jihadi, other Sunni, and Kurdish elements). Some pundits believe the Alawites eventually will attempt to construct a cohesive stronghold around the port of Latakia and (if they have the strength) in some of the Western string of cities and towns along the traditional trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
If this is true, Assad could have difficulty maintaining his status atop his bedrock constituency. Some Alawites appear to want to disgorge a longtime protector who has turned into a lethal liability. Others in this community did not benefit as much as they believe they should have under the regime, and long have been ready to see the back of the ruling family. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether in a post-Assad scenario the Alawites would be capable of organizing a robust power structure/patronage system, carving out a viable and defensible territorial unit, or of creating productive ties to other emerging post-Syrian power centers, regional and tribal notables, and international actors.
Meanwhile, the various Sunni tribes, militias, and would-be national powers will continue their mixed game of cooperation, conflict, and international diplomacy. Syria is providing the latest example of a pattern evident in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, northern Nigeria, Mali, and elsewhere. When, in the context of the reemergence of Islam as an active agent in global politics, fighting breaks out among different Muslims struggling to shape an emerging Islamic transnational system – and no outsider gets involved – radical jihadi forces tend to win. Whether this results from faith and motivation, superior training, greater financing, better leadership, or some combination, it appears to take a considerable effort from US French, or other elite military forces to stem jihadist advances. The fact that the numbers of fighters in these radical fighting groups are relatively few in number is irrelevant; so far they often have shown the capability to defeat their opponents, provide social services, establish local economic systems, and impose Sharia. The future of the former Syrian space will depend in part on whether the al-Nusrah Front proves capable of reprising this pattern.
It is much too soon to know how much of Syria the al-Nusrah fighters will be able to bring under their control. It is not too soon to judge that – absent an (unlikely) major international military intervention – the jihadis are going to be a major player willing and able to test their limits as part of a resurgent extremist movement involving Iraq and northern Lebanon. But it already is clear that neither the Free Syrian Army (whatever that really is) nor more moderately-inclined militias so far are able (or willing?) to rein in or bound the activities of the al-Qa’ida affiliated jihadis.
International diplomacy devoted to choosing a notional Syrian government is getting a lot of attention, but – in addition to the al-Nusrah question – more important to the future of Syria will be the determination of which notables, fighting groups, and patronage systems establish local control in which parts of what no longer is a coherent country. Neighborhoods in Damascus, Aleppo, and other key towns along the north-south corridor running between the Lebanese and Turkish borders will matter, of course, but the sub-rosa trade route for arms and other things between Iran and Lebanon means one cannot ignore areas farther to the east. Iran, the residual Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Alawite middlemen involved in their network of transport and supplies will need to secure routes, water and other resources, and safe havens across the former Syrian space.
The struggle to create local satrapies and patronage/security systems will continue to spill over into Lebanon where, for the first time in years, Hezbollah could face a challenge to its hegemony. Jihadi fighters already have been involved in clashes in the northern town of Tripoli. Sunni and Christian groups seeking a counter to Hezbollah could choose to enable – if not join – fighters already threatening to spread to Lebanon the global sectarian violence that has involved attacks against Shi’a communities and religious pilgrims in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The danger of such a development almost certainly has caused Tehran to reassess its regional security interests, to seek redundant supply lines to Hezbollah, and to increase its influence with the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad. The stress Syria’s implosion is adding to the pressure put on Iran by international sanctions and internal political squabbling might be one reason Tehran (if not Qom) appears interested in reopening negotiations with Washington on the nuclear issue.
The fighting in Syria will continue to threaten the tenuous stability existing in an Iraq still struggling to reestablish some sort of equilibrium in the wake of the 2003 US invasion. Many jihadist fighters in Syria appear to have come from Iraq, where they learned their skills and practiced them in attacks against US forces and local opponents. Prime Minister Maliki, skillful at balancing relations with Iran, Syria, Turkey, various Kurds (domestic and foreign), and the United States was careful at the recent Arab League Summit to decry “terrorism” in Syria – a nod to Assad’s characterization of his opponents – while not criticizing those impatient to put a bigger pan-Arab footprint in Syria. Maliki’s security problems seem likely to grow once jihadi fighters return from Syria and re-focus on the off-and-on battles they have fought with the Americans and with a Shi’a influence in Baghdad many Sunnis still do not accept.
Syria’s implosion is having a complicated impact on Maliki’s longstanding difficulties constraining the centrifugal political and economic goals of Iraqi Kurds. Before 2011, it looked like the Kurds were well on their way to establishing an arrangement with Turkey in which Ankara would purchase oil from Kurdistan – cutting out Baghdad – in exchange for Iraqi Kurds putting a lid on activities by Turkish Kurdish insurgents operating inside northern Iraq. The possibility that Syrian Kurds might carve out their own entity is giving Ankara pause – the Turks will want to make certain Iraqi and Syrian Kurds do not move toward establishing the larger Kurdish state they would consider a magnet for Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
So far, political tensions and public anger in Tunisia and Egypt appear unlikely to turn into anything like the chaos in Syria. Libya is still deciding the extent to which it will keep to the single administrative unit that combined traditionally separate Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in 1951. Algeria, Morocco, and the states in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf area have remained relatively quiet, but problems in Jordan and Bahrain are on the others’ radar. For all these states, internal concerns create an imperative to help the various Syrian factions approach some sort of end game. The trick for the strategically-minded among Syrian and international actors will be to figure out when that end game finally is approaching.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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