Global Security Series: Collapse of the Syrian Regime and Implications for the Region
By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.
Our Global Security Series offers background and analysis on issues related to U.S. national and global security. This final post in the Syria series will focus on the current state of the country and near-term impact of a post-Assad Syria on the region at large.
The Assad regime, which has ruled Syria since 1963, first under Hafez al-Assad and now under his son, Bashar al-Assad, is in its death throes. No one can say whether the regime’s shelf-life will be measured in weeks or months, but it seems quite clear that the civil war engulfing the country will end in a collapse of the present system. Naturally, this has profound implications for both Syria and the broader Middle East.
A New Order in Syria
At the time of this writing, there have been an estimated 20,000 deaths related to the Syrian civil war, bloodletting that is likely to continue in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the regime given the ethnic and religious divisions in the country. Syria’s current regime is identified with ethnic minorities, particularly the Alawis, but also Druze, Christians, and other groups. The new order in Syria is predicted to be dominated by the majority Sunni Muslim population and there will likely be a great deal of sectarian conflict as the majority Sunnis will want “payback” for the decades of domination by the Alawis and their allies. The Alawis and other minority groups are expected to “circle the wagons” in an attempt to protect themselves. This could mean that, in the short term, Syria will fragment into groups of warring militias, each controlling a different area of the country. The Alawis, for example, are bound to retreat to their traditional homeland in the mountains above Syria’s Mediterranean coast. They may be able, at least for a time, to run their own mini-state until post-Assad Syria becomes less chaotic and a reconstituted Syrian army is able to reassert control over the country.
In short, it will likely take quite some time for sectarian conflict to end in Syria and for the country to become stable and able to control its territory and borders.
Political Vacuum in the Region
Given the expected period of quasi-anarchy and internecine conflict in post-Assad Syria, a political vacuum will develop in Syria that will undoubtedly affect the region. As with Iraq, ongoing conflict in Syria between ethnic and religious communities will provide significant opportunities for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups to operate in Syria and use the country’s territory as a launching pad for attacks – in this case against neighboring Israel. According to a variety of reports coming out of Syria, Al Qaeda-related groups are already operating in the country. While these groups may be focused on bringing down the Assad regime and attacking the country’s religious and ethnic minorities (as Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia has done with respect to minority groups in Iraq) the opportunity to attack Israel is something they aren't likely to pass up. An anarchic Syria that is unable to prevent attacks against Israel from its territory could invite Israeli military operations on Syrian territory which could, in turn, inflame the region.
The new Syrian regime will probably be hostile to Iran. This is in part due to the link between Syria and Iran, plus Iran’s staunch support of the Assad regime and reported deployment of security personnel during the civil war to defend the Assad regime and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. This will make for a severe blow to Iran’s prestige and influence in the region as it loses the support of its only Arab state ally. Hizballah will be cut off from its main conduit for the smuggling of weapons, which means if Israel and Hizballah go to war as they did in 2006, Hizballah can expect its arsenal of rockets and missiles to run out without the ability to restock. A Hizballah without several tens of thousands of weapons with which to threaten Israeli cities will essentially become a toothless organization.
The collapse of the Assad regime will represent a victory for Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both of which are keen to block any Iranian attempts to gain inroads into the region. Blocking Iran’s influence is also a key objective for the United States, but the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria will bring with it many new problems as it solves older ones. Iran’s influence will be blunted and Hizballah will be significantly weakened, which should please American policymakers. At the same time, Al Qaeda affiliates may obtain a foothold in yet another Arab country and use that to attack Israel and destabilize both Jordan and Lebanon. As is often the case in the Middle East, the United States will be forced to choose between bad and worse. Good is not likely to be one of the policy outcomes.
Next week, we begin a new Global Security mini-series discussing the history and political state of China.