As Bashar al-Assad is increasingly cornered and his regime gradually fails, the question of what Syria is going to look like after he leaves is fast becoming clear: Without Assad, Syria will be a pit of sectarian violence.
According to the UN, entire groups of people are at threat. Syria’s population is a religious and ethnic patchwork, one that is barely being held together by Assad. While tens of thousands of people will have died to oust Assad, sectarian violence after Assad could dramatically increase that number. The deteriorating security situation in Lebanon, the influx of foreign fighters, refugees, and Syria's own internal centrifugal forces demonstrate that the opposition is weak, and upon Assad's exit, it will disintegrate into bloody sectarian conflict.
Here is the basic problem: The Free Syrian Army (FSA) defines itself as being the antithesis to Assad’s regime. However, when he’s gone, the reference point for what the FSA represents becomes much weaker and it must find another focus to stay relevant. The prolonged negotiations in Qatar managed to produce a loosely united opposition under Moaz al-Khatib, but the indications are that the rebel alliance is splintering before the civil war even ends.
Foreign fighters from Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, with Saudi and Qatari funding, are fighting alongside the indigenously Syrian groups; conspicuously, al-Nusra, an import rebel brigade, as one of the most experienced combat outfits operating in Syria, has a significant share of the military competence the rebels demonstrate, but are at the same time designated as terrorists, fighting for an Islamic state in Syria. The writing is on the wall: any future regime in Syria will include an Islamist party with a narrow vision, and that alone will fuel warfare in the country.
The refugee problem is intense as well, at nearly a million people relocating to the surrounding countries, and with further millions being displaced internally in Syria. Christians and Druze are among the most adversely affected, with those who escaped the fighting going mainly to Lebanon. Millennia-old communities will be uprooted and will potentially never recovered, not to mention of the reprisals and group-based violence that will take place. It is not a stretch of the imagination to foresee inter-ethnic violence taking aim at soft targets, like marketplaces, schools and sites of worship.
The Alawites represent a branch of Islam, not quite aligned with the dominant Sunni variety, nor the more conservative streams of the religion. They take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib, considered to be the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the first Shi’a imam. The Alawis also self-identify as Shi’a Muslims. However, their interpretation of Islam is also thought to include aspects of Christianity, and the secrecy of the group in regard to their beliefs and customs makes it hard to discern other influences on their teachings. A likely factor is their geographical remoteness and living on the periphery of the Muslim world helped this change in perspective. It is also indicative that the government of Assad did not tolerate political opposition, but its secular nature did permit greater religious freedom. It is ironic that Syria’s Arab Spring could harm the Alawites in paticular.
Syria’s VP, Farouq al-Sharaa maintains that the war cannot be won by either side, and it is the most sober evaluation of the conflict to date. It is impossible to kill every loyalist without committing anything short of a genocide and the alternative to Assad is a sectarian bloodbath. In the end, as in Libya, any reference to Assad could mean personal, professional, or family suicide, and a restoration of a regime very similar to Assad’s.