The Dark Alternatives to Assad

As the Syrian government continues its systematic crackdown and the weekly protests show no signs of abating, the situation in Syria is becoming more intractable by the day. Instability in this central Middle Eastern nation has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries including Israel and Lebanon, making it increasingly important to understand where Syria might be headed. Despite the rising death toll, the regime is digging in, meaning it is likely that Syria President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future.

It is difficult to imagine a Syria without the Assad regime. Syria has no real political opposition, no experience with democracy, and lies in a region flooded with destabilizing transnational organizations such as Hezbollah. Not even the current protest movement is organized or unified enough to provide a realistic alternative to the current government, nor have they presented any vision of a post-Assad Syria.

Without any shadow of a feasible alternative government in sight, the best-case scenario for the Syrian people might be that the protesters implement the desired reforms over the next several months, while they weaken the hard-line elements within the government. The government would need to deliver reparations to the residents of Latakia, Daraa, Homs, Banias and other places where people have been killed. However, with every passing week more lives are lost, making this path harder to follow and a poor alternative to the victims of the regime’s continued brutality.

There are few silver linings in the context of Syria’s revolts. The Assad regime is bad, yet it is easy to imagine something even worse than a secular (and formerly predictable) dictator. What if Syria collapses into a bloody sectarian civil war? Or, what if the government is taken over by hard-line Islamic fundamentalists?

The worst scenario would be one that combines these two possibilities: the violence becomes even more widespread and thousands die, and then Syria's regime falls, turning into an Iraqi-style sectarian melee. Syria would not have the luxury of the international stewardship found in Iraq, which at least assured that Iraq preserved some form of democracy. In Syria the outcome could be a hard-line religious government — one that causes instability on the Israeli border, restricts female and religious minority rights, and flaunts its nuclear ambitions. 

If the scenario of a long civil war comes to pass, how it will affect the rest of the Middle East is anyone’s guess. Currently the U.S. and other world powers shy away from intervention. Syria is at the heart of one of the most volatile regions in the world and while international superpowers may impose sanctions from afar, nobody really wants to get involved. This might change if Syria’s interior chaos starts to spill over and threatens Western international interests.

Though the situation does not look great for the protest movement right now, there are several signs to look for in the coming months that would indicate a reversal of fortune.

First, the army might turn on the Assad regime, giving the protestors a fighting chance. Up until this point there have been only scattered reports of military disobedience. Second, the international community could ramp up their support for the protest movement beyond sanctions. Although there are no signs of military action such as the no-fly zone that has been put into effect in Libya, in recent days Turkey — an ally of the Assad regime — has taken the positive steps of openings its borders to Syrian refugees and providing them with humanitarian and medical aid.

Finally, and most importantly, more Syrians — including influential groups such as middle-class urban Sunnis and well-off minorities such as the Christians and Alawites — could rise up and display the type of unity seen in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Up until now, the power of people has been the key ingredient missing from Syria’s revolution. But, recent high-profile events such as the killing and torture of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb could finally unite the Syrian people against their repressive government.

Unfortunately the slow burn in Syria continues as the government moves from fire to fire, trying to extinguish each one until ultimately — they hope — they succeed.

Photo Credit: martha_jean

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Valerie Szybala

Valerie Szybala is a specialist in Middle East affairs who recently returned from studying Arabic in Syria. She has worked for Dr. Jason Lyall at Yale University studying civilian casualties from coalition air strikes in Afghanistan and spent one summer as a researcher with the Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) in Jerusalem where she worked on peace process policy and track II negotiations. Valerie also worked for several years at the American Council of Young Political Leaders in her native Washington, D.C. Valerie graduated from Stanford University in 2010 with her M.A. in International Policy Studies.

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