Assad’s Endgame Reply

Would Bashar al Assad be desperate enough to provoke a regional conflagration? If he is, there’s a target on the U.S. personnel in Jordan.

By J. Dana Stuster

Bashar al Assad has been at war with his own country — or vast swathes of it, at least — for a year and a half. His regime is more threatened now than ever before, and the duration of the violence has only hardened opposition to his regime from the international community. From outside Syria, it seems near-impossible that Assad will be able to weather the conflict; within Assad’s insular inner circle, it is hard to say what the perspective is. The regime’s strategy seems to be a nation-wide version of whack-a-mole, with massive retaliatory strikes targeting civilians to deter opposition. This has taken on an increasingly ethno-religious dimension, to the extent that both sides can make credible cases that they are threatened with a campaign of ethnic cleansing. But if resources continue to trickle to the rebels and they can continue to threaten the regime, this reactionary strategy will prove increasingly untenable.

If Assad can’t win, what is his endgame?

A number of analysts have pointed to the possibility of Syria fracturing into ethnic enclaves — a Kurdish sub-state in the Northeast, an Alawi sub-state in the coastal Northwest, and a mostly Sunni sub-state in the country’s heartland. For this to occur, though, the Alawi component (still epitomized by the regime, but which may in time be better represented by the related, but not interchangeable, Alawi shabiha militias) in the civil war will have to maintain its control of a territorial safe haven. This cannot be done if the Alawis are overwhelmed in a total defeat. While such a crushing defeat seems like a distant prospect now, the potential for ethnic cleansing resulting from such a situation is motivating Syrians to take up arms. To the extent that Syria’s civil war has strategists and war planners, they are preparing for worst-case scenarios. To the Assad regime, that scenario is that the establishment will be completely overwhelmed with no sanctuary.

This is a situation in which the Assad regime has nothing to lose. And this is a horrifying prospect.

Like Samson in the temple, Assad could try to collapse the region into Syria. Though it may seem counterintuitive, internationalizing the conflict further could weaken the opposition and draw Assad’s foreign rivals into a quagmire. Assad could provoke a Turkish invasion, U.S. operations, increased and more apparent support from Iran and Lebanon, or from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As more money and foreign patrons pour into Syria, and as the regime — and with it, the need for the opposition to remain unified — weakens, the differences within the opposition groups will become more pronounced. Foreign governments will pick favorites and assert new interests into the conflict; new alliances will form; infighting will increase as the regime recedes and Syria’s power vacuum grows.

There are two reasons this should sound familiar.

The first reason is because this is common in civil wars. The obvious parallel is with Lebanon, where the introduction of foreign funds and troops created a volatile set of allegiances among the factions that shifted throughout the conflict, but it is true of the Yemeni Civil War of the 1960s as well. There, Saudi and Egyptian patronage extended the conflict by years without fully resolving the central issue of governance, instead shifting the meaning of the conflict to a battle over into whose sphere of influence Yemen would fall. More recently, consider Iraq, where a key inflection point in its civil war came when a foreign power (the United States) established a militia (the Sons of Iraq, many of whom were bought off from anti-U.S. militias) in its restive Anbar province. I’m currently reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, in which he describes similar patterns of infighting and fragmentation among the Republican forces: Russia supplied arms, but only to communist factions, “who saw to it that as few as possible got to their political opponents,” namely the anarchists and socialists. The factions disagreed on priorities, especially whether winning the war should take complete precedence over effecting political reforms, “the P.O.U.M. was for immediate revolution, the Communists not,” and were demonized for it despite fighting on the same side of the war. History repeats.

The second reason is because it is already occurring. The Syrian opposition to the Assad regime is fragmenting, not that it was ever a cohesive group. As the conflict continues, foreign patronage will draw the parties farther apart with the Gulf states backing Salafi factions and Turkey tending to support more moderate Muslim Brotherhood groups. In the Northeast, where regime forces have been effectively ousted, there is evidence that the fracturing of the opposition and struggle to control what governance will follow has begun with early reports that the Free Syrian Army has clashed with Kurdish militias. Iran already has a presence in the country, as does Lebanese Hezbollah.

The Syrian Civil War is becoming less and less insular. Syrian helicopters have chased at least one journalist (Mitch Prothero) and numerous refugees and border smugglers across the border into Lebanon (not to mention the bizarre political scandal in which a former Lebanese information minister is accused of smuggling explosives in the trunk of his car to commit domestic terrorism at the behest of the Syrian government). Secret documents obtained by al Arabiya purportedly show that Syrian agent provocateurs are trying to infiltrate Jordan. Last week, Syrian regime forces mortared a Turkish border town. Mortar grenades and shells have landed in Turkey and Lebanon before, but Turkey has responded with shelling of its own and a parliamentary resolution authorizing more forceful measures. As Khaled al Saleh of the Syrian National Council told al Arabiya, “There is an attempt to export the Syrian crisis.”

Syria has backed off for now, but Turkey is backsliding deeper into the conflict in Syria and the Assad government has the power to provoke Ankara and other regional governments to move faster and more forcefully into the country, and into an inevitable quagmire. In extreme desperation, tactics and weapons that were taken off the table early in the conflict — for example, Syria’s chemical weapons — may be reconsidered.

All of this makes the New York Times report yesterday that the United States is working with Jordan to establish a buffer zone inside Syria’s borders — in effect, a limited invasion — very troubling. As Assad’s desperate regime grows suicidal and tries to draw other countries into its implosion, Jordanian and U.S. forces will have a target on their backs for the exact reason that they are there: to insulate the conflict. As the Assad regime thrashes about for its last options, everyone stands to be hit and it will take great resolve not to get drawn into a disaster.

J. Dana Stuster is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Review.

Photo credit: Flickr


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