360° Analysis

The Syrian Quagmire: An Aftermath Scenario


September 12, 2013 04:30 EDT

The quest for stability in Syria will determine the outcome of the conflict.

Historian Niall Ferguson holds that order is always the best argument in favor of the empire. Precisely, territorial order or stability is taken by Richard Falk as the bedrock of state sovereignty. Historian Eric Hobsbawm, for his part, links the human need for such an order to people being subjects before becoming citizens.

The outcomes of the Syrian conflict are contingent on the different ways that stakeholders’ quest for stability and order in the territory unfurl.

A unilateral decision to attack Bashar al-Assad’s order-undermining regime was taken by the US after an alleged chemical weapons attack led to a death toll of 1,429 people, including 426 children, on August 21. Despite having claimed that the US had documented proof of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the meaninglessness of gathering support was made obvious on August 31 – barely one day after it was confirmed that the UK would not lend a helping hand – when US President Barack Obama stated: “We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”

The US underpins the intervention in restoring respect for human dignity, national security, and the global prohibition to use chemical weapons, as Obama listed in identical order on August 31. The loftiness in these goals has contrasted with the failure to comply with other provisions of international law by playing down the need for UN-provided proof, let alone a UN Security Council mandate. Being endorsed exclusively by those nations where public opinion was not requested to participate in decision-making, has not contributed either to lifting the public opinion’s half-heartedness with regard to intervention, as polls reveal.  

Against this somber background, the White House has been prudent enough to make clear that the aim of the attack would not be to oust Assad, but to ensure the regime does not step over the red line again.

Should the conflict indeed scale up, the US would contradict its upholding a no-boots-on-the-ground approach. Iraq-allergic European parliaments and public opinion would be further dissuaded from supporting military action. Staying on once the civil war ends and developing nation-building plans in Syria, would contradict the 2010 US National Security Strategy which advocated an assertive building at home, and a more ambiguous "shaping" abroad policy.

Two hypotheses unfurl regarding the duration of a potential military strike.

The Non-Aftermath Scenario

First off, regardless of what option the US tilts toward with regard to the attack’s lifespan, Assad would pull off his one solid victory. Not only will he be granted the chance to endure an intervention that has aroused bottom-up rejection in the West so far, and which Ban Ki-Moon himself has failed to endorse. Moreover, this will help justify Assad’s unwillingness to take part in diplomatic negotiations. Russia, who has already deployed more naval forces from its Black Sea fleet, would start a comfortable discourse on how they advocated for diplomacy and were forced to respond before an American abuse of state sovereignty. An ironical axis of jihadist forces already in control of Syria’s north-east and US-supported rebel forces in growing control of the southern province of Dara'a, would emerge.

The US-led confrontation would run parallel to the civil war, which might unravel ad calendas graecas — meaning that a deeply ingrained conflict is here to stay.

This happened in the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years. Alternatively, it could have a sequel of official peace coupled with pervasive insecurity, à la Iraqienne, where sectarian attacks have proliferated since 2003 in spite of the official cessation of warfare.

Everyday confrontations reflect the sectarian tinge that the conflict has acquired. The UN report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic gives examples, such as "raiding in predominantly Sunni areas in Latakia" or trials in ar-Raqqah and in al-Shajarah (Dara’a) in April, where Alawite soldiers who had been captured by rebels were executed, unlike non-Alawis, who were either freed or jailed.

As a result, a complex network of internal migration flows has arisen. Aside from heading for the coastlines, Alawites originally stemmed from cities such as Aleppo or Baniyas and have split into two after confrontation between sects, resulting in a stalemate. However, flows go beyond the mere Sunni-Shiite confrontation. Several Christian towns were emptied at the beginning of August as well. What is more, the bombing of a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut on August 15 is another reminder of the spillover effects of sectarian divisions.

Thus, regardless of the duration of the attack that the US pursues, the least worrying consequence would be a short-term intensification of refugees. This would, in turn, multiply the Syrian population’s destabilizing potential in the region. Timothy Garton Ash recently provided a graphic explanation of the problem by pointing out that "Syrian refugees already make up 10% of the population of Jordan. That is like the whole of Bulgaria moving to Britain.”

In short, even if the goal of intervention is restricted to preventing Assad from violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which forbids the use of poisonous gases as a method of warfare and remains the only instrument signed by Syria so far in this domain, the acrimony of the continuing war would prevent an intervention from having a "shock and awe" effect. Nor would such awe be felt by other stakeholders, notably in the international community’s demanding stance towards post-Iraq appeals of R2P. A non-aftermath would ensue, meaning the strike would fail to trigger new (less ruinous) phases in the dispute.

The Aftermaths of a Post-Strike Syrian Civil War

After reaching selected chemical targets or transport linkages, the Obama administration may stick to the unwillingness stated so far regarding a long-term operation and allow for the civil war to be waged on. Several scenarios may be forecasted.

A Ba’athist Status Quo

Assad could end up holding (unquestioned) sway of power again. The idea of resuming routine negotiations with a victorious Bashar al-Assad at the other side of the table does not seem to be the most appealing option for a post-strike US, as well as for the rebel-hosting and rebel-welcoming, such as Turkey and the EU, respectively.

Alternatively, the Ba'ath party could remain in power and have the head of the party removed. The latter would be a more plausible aftermath, insofar as the regime is backed by the institutional support built around the dynasty and is, as CIA Chief General Michael Flynn stated, more voluminously manned and superiorly armed.

In any case, regional forums such as the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council, which have already accepted the Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic, would have to build bridges over troubled internal waters and accept a broader coalition or even allow for it to be replaced by an eventual Ba’athist representative.

Then again, regional frameworks can always be reshaped, as happened after the 1978 Camp David talks between Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli PM Menachem Begin, when the Arab League suspended Egypt and removed its headquarters from Cairo until 1989.

The Collapse of the Timeworn

Without an active international community backing the opposition after a tiptoeing version of R2P, a Ba’athist downfall may be regarded by many as untenable. Yet prolonged military superiority, without military victory in sight, might undermine moral resilience among Assad’s supporters and contribute to resistance forces being successful at leaking within the breaches.

That being said, securing a victory requires an electoral process, the benefits of which are twofold.

First, an election would contribute to dissolving the National Coalition, a conglomerate of opposition forces which by de facto represents the Syrian people opposing the regime, but lacks a legitimate mandate to do so. Not only does the coalition lack origin-based legitimacy, it also suffers from a faulty composition. The Syrian National Council only agreed to share speaking and deciding for Syria once the Arab League assured the council that it would constitute nearly 50 percent thereof.

Internal decision-making processes would reproduce the unilateralism upon which the Assad dynastic government was based, under an inexistent equivalence between the number of council members and of Syrian citizens supporting their mandate. Authors dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century have warned against the risks of the tyranny of the majority, where the oppression of the minority is a mere collateral damage. Western-led international organizations’ voting systems ring some bells here.

Secondly, including Alawites in the electoral process would turn them into an essential force in forging the post-Assad Syria. Alawites, Druze and other minority groups, who were originally awarded autonomy by the French under the conviction divide et impera, should have the right to contribute to the Syrian political landscape with an added value as a result of the population demanding so.


Greek historian Thucydides described hegemonic wars as the consequence of a relatively stable hierarchy of powers where a hegemon is confronted with a subordinate power’s disproportionate growth. Raymond Aron believed the outcome of such conflict would be the transformation of the system of interstate relations.

Given the absence of equal-scale powers to the dynasty in Assad's Syria, a national hegemony can be easily perceived. The dense network of threads intertwining regional powers and, through the implication of the UN, the international order, is bound to link the altered domestic hierarchy of powers to Aron’s prediction.

In any of the hypotheses, the reluctance towards a long-term and large-scale intervention may reflect a definite Western turn towards punctual actions.

Unprecedented support for R2P among the heads of a number of allied leaders has run parallel to the de-escalation of such aims by a peculiar coalition of the unwilling, composed of UN authorities, domestic stakeholders in the West, the Russia-China axis and a belt of regional powers south of Syria. The paralysis, albeit temporary, that the latter are capable of accomplishing regarding the intervention attaches a greater role to the use of regional forces and forums as vectors, sparing themselves the concerns of remaining (politically inert or illegitimately active) within sight of the public eye.

The Obama administration initially planned to limit its contact with Congress to providing representatives with relevant information. Only did it seek congressional approval once the British parliament had ruled out endorsing a non-UN-led, evidence-less operation. It may only be a matter of time until this reluctance to ask for a confirmation of legitimacy turns into a habit.

What is more, the incoherent view of R2P as a paralegal alternative to the UN Security Council process of intervention described in Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, is coupled to healthy practices such as holding parliamentary debates on R2P. Such practices reflect that national democracy prevails over international democracy (inasmuch as Security Council mandates are waited for and respected on the grounds that parliaments request so), but it is still a sign of greater involvement of the people’s representatives in foreign policy.

In other words, the unpredictable depth of structural changes in state conduct that the conflict is bound to bring about, regardless of which hypothesis prevails once the conflict is over, may turn out to be the key uncertainty that the Syrian quagmire brews.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

Image: Copyright ©    Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved


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