When the Syrian civil war erupted in March 2011, it was another episode of peaceful protest in what was termed the “Arab Spring” that began in Tunisia and was followed by another wave of protests in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. Many pro-democracy optimists expected a quick end similar to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but their wish did not come true.
Given Syria’s pan-Arab history, as articulated by the Ba’ath Party ideology, its proximity to Israel, its involvement with Lebanese Hezbollah, and more importantly, its strong alliance with Iran, Syria’s protests became a point of interest for more than the Syrians. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states interfered by arming and financing anti-Assad militants and turned what was a peaceful civil protest into an ugly civil war with unspeakable manifestations: ethno-sectarian killing, massacres of civilians, beheading, and in some cases eating raw organs of Syrian soldiers. The regime of President Bashar Assad matched these acts with atrocities of its own. In a very short time, the conflict developed into a war of many belligerents with no good guys.
The conflict also attracted Iran, Israel, Turkey, and some non-state actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah, some Iraqi and Afghani volunteers fighters, and the Da’ish (the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham). Certain Western countries joined the conflict later and a coalition to fight Da’ish in Iraq and Syria was formed and led by the United States. The last, and most dramatic, development in this regard was the open involvement of Russia in support of President Assad.
This article presents several possible scenarios for the future of Syria’s civil war, which claimed so far more than 250,000 deaths, more than 4 million registered refugees, more than 8 million internally displaced people, more than $200 billion in economic loss, and four of every five Syrians are living in poverty. The U.N. estimates that it will take more than 30 years to restore the Syrian economy to its pre-war level, which was not good to begin with.
The First scenario can be a continuation of the current conflict without a peaceful of military resolution. With the fighting forces on both sides holding their military and financial strength, and the continued external help for all parties in the conflict, the war can be prolonged for several years. The Lebanese civil war of 1975 lasted more than fifteen years, and we are less than five years in the Syrian conflict. This scenario would have a devastating impact on Syria and the region. The international community must strive to prevent it in any way possible. A long war in Syria will make it impossible to achieve stability in Iraq, it will threaten the security of Lebanon and Turkey, and it is almost certain to destabilize Jordan, which is barely holding. It will also increase the catastrophic human suffering and feed the growing challenge of refugee flood, which already reached western Europe and is stirring a partisan debate in the United States.
The second scenario can be the survival of President Assad and his regime after defeating the militant opposition. This scenario is becoming even more realistic than it was a few days ago, because of the terrorist attacks in France and the results of investigating the downing of the Russian passenger plane after its take-off from Egypt. For the Western world, Syria is already becoming what Afghanistan used to be just before September 11, 2001. This country cannot be allowed to become a launching pad for the new pattern of conduct Da’ish is adopting — taking the conflict to Europe and beyond.
While this scenario is less traumatic than the first one, it will send a horrifying message to dictators that you can murder your way out of a revolution if you manage to hang on long enough. It will also have dreadful consequences for the Syrian people, as the regime will take its time retaliating against those who opposed its authority, just as Saddam Hussein did after surviving the 1991 Uprising. History showed us that bitter dictators retaliated by executing first and investigating later, if ever. Being innocent is not a guarantee to avoid persecution.
Saddam killed more than 200,000 Iraqis in the aftermath of 1991, most of whom are still in undiscovered mass graves. No courts or even investigations took place. Indeed, all the victims were systematically murdered in death camps without any concern about their personal conduct.
The third scenario may involve the overthrow of President Assad by military means. Depending on how this is accomplished, Syria can descend in an all-out civil war with the various groups that are currently fighting the regime turning against each other as it happened in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces. After all, other than their hostility toward the Assad regime, these militant groups (Nusra Front, Da’ish, Free Syrian army, to name a few) have nothing in common and they all have different worldviews on the future shape of Syria: Islamic state, military dictatorship, a caliphate, or something else. Democracy is not on the agenda of any of these groups. Therefore, this scenario can be another version of the first scenario, but without the participation of the current regime.
The fourth scenario is a negotiated settlement between the regime and some elements of the opposition to share political power in a transitional period, with President Assad remaining in his place. This is perhaps the most likely successful end to the conflict because it will give incentive to the Assad regime to accept a face saving exit from the current stalemate, it will be supported by Iran and Russia, and it will prevent future atrocities against innocent Syrians by any side of the conflict. It can also be the best way to facilitate a smooth transition to the solution that was attempted in Geneva and Vienna, with the ultimate goal being a Syria without President Assad.
Although this last scenario may seem hard for those who would like to see President Bashar Assad defeated and humiliated, it might be the best possible outcome, given the alternatives outlined here and the support Assad has received from his domestic and international allies. Many lives will be saved by ending the conflict, and the suffering of millions will finally come to an end.