With the situation in Syria showing no signs of a swift resolution and every sign of protracted stalemate I thought I’d hypothesise on some possible scenarios which could emerge over the next year. However, as the last year has shown, prediction in the Middle East is a dangerous, inexact practice.
1) Protests against the regime increase in number and scale, into the heart of Damscus, the trickle of Syrian army defectors becomes a flood: Assad steps down in the manner of Mubarak, leaving senior Baathists, Army leaders to pave the way for free elections:
Egypt redux and, for many in the West (if not the Syrian opposition), the ideal situation, although it seems highly unlikely given the level of violence perpetrated thus far, extrajudicial killings and rampant torture. Assad and other regime figures would hardly submit themselves to a situation which could lead them to future indictment and trial. Also, whilst speculation on the political psychology of the regime is problematic, it seems – to put it brutally- that Assad feels his army command are willing to see through the current policy of internal repression, and that enough of the population will either support or look the other way during the period required to crush the nascent uprising. Any transition to democratic, civilian rule would face massive obstacles: the Opposition would demand Assad step down as a precondition and also, perhaps, the presence of international mediators or even troops (a move which would be anathema for many Syrians who, it must be said, still appear to support to regime in large numbers, let alone other actors such asthe Arab league, UN etc.. to engage).
2) Further defections and desertions strengthen the insurgent “Syrian Free Army” to the point where it develops a credible offensive capability, whilst regular forces are unable to consistently and decisively surpress centres of the revolt in Hama and Homs, withdrawing from them. An uneasy stalemate ensues:
Not far off the current situation. As one commentator has put it “The uprising is too big to crush, but too small to overthrow the regime”, and with every new batch of killings of protestors, disappearances and torture accusations, reconciliation between the regime and the opposition becomes more difficult. Continued sanctions and an fast-paced economic decline over the next 12 months as a consequence of this could force the regime to the table to negotiate over some, if not all, of protesters demands. Highly unlikely that a large scale, drawn out insurgency will be able to develop in the short-medium term though, despite the regime’s accusations of an Al-Qaeda inspired series of car bombings in Damascus recently, which seem far fetched.
3) The regime gradually collapses from within under the combined stressors of the urban uprisings and various ethnic and political and military factions accepting the demise of the Assad regime; although not willing to allow the main opposition groups to simply take over. Likely resulting in all out civil war:
The nightmare “Lebanon” scenario. Given the complex ethnic makeup of Syria generally and the Syrian army in particular, there is no way of telling how the army, or its commanders would be able to handle a post-Assad transition to democratic civilian rule. A full-scale civil war in Syria would be a disaster for the region, and has the potential (if not the guarantee) to produce a situation on a scale as bloody, as chaotic and destabilising as Iraq in 2006, although the ethnic demographics and geographies of Syria make the protracted Muslim/Christian bloodbath of 1980’s Lebanon less likely; in the event of a disorderly regime collapse, the political violence which would emerge from this kind of endgame would be potentially catastrophic, given Syria’s location at the heart of the Middle East and the possibility of external actors wishing to exert influence in any transition, peaceful or violent.
There are, of course many other possibilities, variables and permutations of the above. These are though, broadly premised on the assumption that the Opposition movement in Syria is not going to simply “shut up shop” and return home; too much blood has been spilled and the emancipatory desire of the Arab spring still courses through the streets, bodies and affective relations of Syrian life for this to be a possibility.
However, the overwhelming people power (however unfinished their revolution) of Egypt has here, been met with violence rather than tacit support, and the trajectory of the brief Libyan civil war of 2011 is unlikely to be repeated here, given the impossibility of NATO airpower being given to support the opposition (Syria’s air defence capabilities are well in advance of those encountered in Libya, not to mention the UNSC) and the relative military weakness of the insurgency.
The Assad regime may be able to continue in its current “holding pattern” of short, sharp military crackdowns, mass arrests and maintaining the line to internal constituencies that outside conspiracies and terrorism necessitate the maintenance of an militarised state of exception. However, it is widely felt that this is unsustainable in the medium-long term, particularly if protests intensify. It should not be forgotten though, that the Hama massacre of 1982, where, during the last period of similar unrest, Assad’s father ordered the army to restore control, resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people. It remains to be seen though, whether the Army, or Assad himself, has the desire or ability to order the repeat of such a brutal episode. Whilst this uncertainty remains, the capacity for de-escalation and de-militarisation must be kept alive and nurtured by all actors with influence in Syria.