The defeat of Syrian rebels in the strategic city of Qusair last week laid bare the impermanence of the opposition’s slow-but-sure creep to victory against government forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad. Supposedly inevitable, the prospect of rebel fighters ultimately overtaking the Syrian army on the battlefield is now in doubt, and intervention by the international community to save the struggling revolution becomes an even greater imperative as capable but unwilling powers like the United States continue to pursue a troubled diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Qusair may be but one in a string of regime victories in the weeks and months ahead that leads to the opposition’s defeat. Imagine Assad’s army does succeed in beating back the rebels. In this scenario, government forces reverse the hard-fought rebel gains in much of the north and east of the country and in greater Damascus — where the opposition is firmly rooted — and brutally reasserts government control over formerly liberated Syrian towns and villages. With the defeat of the so-called “terrorists”, Assad emerges from the crisis with an incontestable grip on power and secures the survival of his autocratic regime.
Although the potential for a total regime victory remains remote, the consequences of a protracted or stalemated war are still very real and dangerous. Imagining such a scenario should compel the international community, and the United States in particular, to reassess the serious risks of failing to assist the opposition in overthrowing Assad. In conceptualizing the horrific possibilities of a regime victory, we more clearly understand what’s at stake in the Syria conflict, and especially why intervening to halt Assad’s army and strengthen the opposition is necessary to bring the conflict to an immediate end. What will an Assad victory lead to?
1. The refugee crisis will collapse the already-fragile regional humanitarian response. In response to Syria’s refugee crisis, the UN last week asked for a record-breaking $5.1 billion in humanitarian aid. But that pales in comparison to what will be required if Assad wins. Even now the more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq are dangerously straining the economies and threatening the stability of host countries. In Jordan, where crushing budget deficits and the reduction of subsidies have led to widespread discontent and violent clashes with the government, the millions required to feed, shelter, and treat the nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees in camps there now are already exploding the country’s budget. In Lebanon and Turkey, which host more than 500,000 and 400,000 Syrian refugees, respectively, the inundation of refugees has outpaced the arrival of aid. Syrian families are moving into half-constructed houses and living under tents where they are vulnerable to disease and stretching already inadequate medical supplies. Estimates by the UN’s Syria Regional Refugee Response anticipate the number of Syrian refugees abroad will increase to 3.5 million, and the number of internally displaced individuals will soar to a whopping 7 million by year’s end. But these numbers are under current circumstances. Should Assad’s army recapture opposition-held territory and unleash a mass wave of violence in stable, rebel-controlled areas, the figure would likely rise dramatically higher.
2. Iran and Hezbollah will be empowered. Assad’s regime is Iran’s most important ally and a vital partner against Israe. Losing Assad is not an option for Tehran, which has sent billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to sustain the Syrian regime since the conflict began despite Iran's own precarious economic situation. Succeeding in Syria would stave off complete regional isolation and strengthen its lifeline to its other regional ally Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, is similarly so fearful of Assad’s defeat that he sent militants to fight alongside regime forces in Syria, playing a decisive role in the victory at Qusair. Given the stunning rebel defeat there, Hezbollah is expected to send even more fighters to Syria. Hezbollah has also deployed a contingent to Aleppo where Assad’s army is planning an assault to retake the city. Advances by Assad’s army would also scatter rebel fighters to Syria’s borders and spawn more deadly conflict across the region. Twin bombings linked to Assad’s forces in the border city of Reyhanli, Turkey in May killed 51 people and injured 140 and are sure to be the first of many violent cross-border exchanges. Skirmishes in northern Lebanon have unsettled that country’s delicate sectarian balance and threaten to cause devastating violence there as well. And in Iraq, where Al-Qaeda weapons and money are flowing unchecked between Syria’s radical Al-Nusra Front and the anti-Maliki opposition, the backlash is inflaming an already tense sectarian situation that risks the very durability of Iraq’s weak government.
3. Assad regime forces will exact revenge against the Sunni-majority opposition and perpetrate mass sectarian atrocities. As Assad’s army retakes parts of the country held by the opposition, regime forces commanded by Assad’s Alawite minority sect will carry out summary executions, imprisonment, and torture among the Sunni-majority opposition. In a country where the confessional balance has always been at risk of tipping, confessionally mixed cities like Homs and Damascus, where Alawites and Sunnis live in close proximity to one another, will erupt in sectarian bloodletting. Already reports have indicated that Assad’s army has forcibly removed Sunni communities near Alawite areas to create protective buffer zones against attack. Atrocities will not be confined to Sunnis alone, however. Alawites and other minorities will be targeted by opposition forces in the panicked and chaotic rebel retreat and result in sectarian cleansing. In a recent report commissioned by the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, former ambassador and Syria expert Frederic Hof warned that there is a high potential for genocidal acts as the conflict drags on, and cautioned that even a stalemated conflict would likely displace confessional communities to safer, more homogenous areas, heightening the risk of sectarian disintegration.
The U.S.’s current approach looks something like this: Decry Assad’s abuses and hope that non-lethal assistance will be enough to sustain the opposition’s gains. But as Qusair has shown, that approach is flawed and won't produce the we want to achieve in Syria: the replacement of Assad’s regime with a stable and friendly new government. In reality, an Assad victory is just as likely as the stalemate that is developing now between the regime and opposition, and sadly the benefit of the doubt is not in our favor.