Anyone who thinks they can pinpoint exactly how the Syrian civil war will end is kidding himself or herself. More than in Egypt, or even Iraq, the number of interacting variables at play is simply too complex, and the challenge of predicting an outcome is similar to solving a geopolitical Rubik's Cube. However, as the Assad regime begins to approach the beginning of its end, we can identify a number of likely developments and political currents that will help us monitor how things are likely to evolve by 2015.
1. Assad will be gone, but the strong Alawite presence will not:
In the Syrian context, the role of the Alawites is relatively analogous to that of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. They are the large minority that not only controls the wheels of government, but which also has had a tight grip on the nation's economic engine since the Bathists consolidated power under Haffez Assad in 1970. As we have seen over and over again in the last two years, all predictions of Bashar Assad's defeat being just around the corner have been premature. There is almost no doubt that the civil war will progress to some sort of tipping point in the coming months, or by 2014, and that Assad will be out of power. However, more than was the case with the Sunnis in Iraq, the Alawites will be a force in whatever form of stability ultimately emerges from the current conflict.
Unlike Iraq's Sunnis, who were largely isolated internally and externally until the beginning of the U.S. "surge," the Alawites have powerful supporters in Iran, Russia, and neighboring Lebanon (Hezbollah), internal allies in much of the Christian community, a more divided rebel opposition among the majority Sunnis than even Saddam had among his majority Shiites, and most importantly, there is no overwhelming outside power with boots on the ground to contain the Alawites in the way that the U.S. military contained the Arab Sunnis when Iraq was invaded and occupied in 2003.
2. The large Sunni majority will be fragmented with strong Islamist currents, not just moderate ones:
Perhaps the most oft cited reason why regional and global powers such as Turkey, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia have been hesitant to arm the Sunni opposition so far is that no foreign governments, not even their intelligence agencies, have shown enough confidence in identifying a moderate force within the opposition that could both claim and fulfill the leadership vacuum that Bashar Assad will leave in his wake. This is not just about the latest news reports claiming an alarming rise in jihadist activity within the Syrian opposition, but also the reality that even within a best case future political structure Islamists will inevitably have a large voice. In short, when analysts talk about the elements that make up the Sunni dominated opposition forces, one does not have look too deeply to discern that there will ultimately be three large currents at work: jihadists who are likely to challenge any non-theocratic governance structure, Islamists along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood who will seek to influence the constitutional make-up of any new government, but who will likely support it if it is accommodating to their core principles, and a moderate if not quite secular bloc that would be the most likely to channel Western cultural influences and political priorities.
It is easy to imagine that just as the U.S., and the EU countries will support the more moderate Sunnis, each of the other Sunni currents will be strongly connected to external forces. Clearly, the "work within the system" Islamists will have strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, the Turkish Justice and Development party, and probably the Saudi government, while the jihadists will be connected to al Kaeda-like supporters, Taliban, etc. from around the world. Even if the influence of the latter can eventually be marginalized it is highly likely that the Islamist currents within Syria will ultimately contain at least two strong representations, much like in Egypt today: conservative Islamists and even more conservative Islamists.
3. A Syria Peace Conference is not inevitable, but likely:
Nothing resurrects the well-ordered imagery of a bygone era of diplomacy than the notion of a peace conference involving multiple global and regional powers. Yet it is difficult to imagine the Syrian conflict as being contained without one. More than the spillover from the Arab Spring, the aftermath of the Iraq War, the perceived threat from Iran, or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the potentially anarchic struggle for normalcy in Syria has a greater chance of destabilizing the entire Levantine region more quickly than any of these other hot issues. The reasons for this are all but self evident: 1) the internal balance of increasingly well armed and deadly struggles will only intensify once a "tipping point has been reached, creating an internationally intolerable refugee crisis even greater than the one we are seeing already, 2) the likelihood of the conflict spilling over to Lebanon, Turkey, and perhaps even to Israel, Jordan, and/or Iraq is great, and 3) the alignment of substantial international support for the Alawites, the moderate Sunnis, the Islamists, and even the jihadists is both real and visible, even today. As such, and given the receding influence of the U.S., some kind of international summit involving the U.S., Russia, Turkey, most of Syria's neighbors, and perhaps even Egypt seems to be the only outcome that would be acceptable both internally and externally. Such a conference, perhaps organized by the UN Security Council, would likely aim at a truce of sorts, followed by some kind of an arrangement to determine how a new Syrian state could be constitutionally organized.
Is this inevitable by 2015? No, but it is highly likely by then or soon thereafter. Given the internal currents in Syria today, the external networks of support behind each of them, and how these are all likely to interact and evolve, it is hard to picture a more viable alternative.