As events in Syria take an increasingly violent turn, the potential for the Assad regime being driven from power grows by the day. This is not yet a likely outcome – the ability of the Syrian authorities to suppress the uprising is substantial. But a straightforward return to pre-revolt conditions in Syria is probably the least likely case. Turmoil in Syria could produce significant changes in the strategic landscape across the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, with important implications for transatlantic security interests. Three possible scenarios illustrate what is at stake.
First, the regime may survive through the repeated use of force, with scant regard for casualties. There are clear precedents for this in modern Syrian history, including the brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982. That episode had little effect on Syria’s external relations. But regional and global expectations are different today, especially in the wake of revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world. Today, Syrian society is more likely to see violent repression as a call to further mobilization. In this sense, there may be no going back to the prevailing order. The maintenance of Alawite minority rule may require measures that are increasingly draconian. They might succeed, but Syria’s opening to the West, which had been gathering way, would be firmly closed. Even critical neighbors like Turkey would be compelled to reassess their relations in the face of wholesale violations of human rights. Violent repression would lead to an even more isolated Syria, even in the absence of any new economic sanctions.
Second, Syria may head toward chaos. The country’s ethnic and religious cleavages and long submerged grievances are unlikely to make for a velvet revolution. Too many Syrians hold grudges against the Assad regime. A chaotic Syria would also be an isolated Syria, and will pose new security challenges for the region. Violence in Syria could easily worsen an already troubled equation in Lebanon, and spillovers might also be felt in Iraq. Turkey may have the most to lose in this scenario. Turkish-Syrian détente, and a burgeoning political and commercial relationship, has been a signature product of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In the late 1990s, Turkey and Syria came to the brink of conflict over Syrian support for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) insurgency in southeastern Anatolia. Since then, the two countries have come to terms over the Kurdish issue, and relations have expanded rapidly. Prolonged turmoil in Syria could provoke Syria’s restive Kurdish minority to action, and this would have direct implications for Turkey’s own struggle with the Kurdish issue, and PKK violence.
Whether Syria chooses harsh repression, or spirals into chaos, its regional role will be sharply affected. Syria will be in no position to engage in negotiations with Israel about the Golan Heights or other aspects of the peace process, even if conditions are favorable on other tracks (also unlikely). An inert Syria may not even be in a position to serve as an effective spoiler in Arab-Israeli relations, as it has in the past. A resurgent Syrian role in Lebanese affairs would be difficult to sustain. Iran might be insensitive to the Assad regime’s use of force to quell domestic opposition, but a chaotic Syria would deprive Tehran of an effective ally in the Levant. Ironically, both Iran and Israel will worry about the consequences of a chaotic Syria, and the possible emergence of a very different, Sunni-led regime. This could come about as the result of a military coup, on the pattern of events in Tunisia and Egypt, or of the emergence of Syria’s potent Islamist movement as a political arbiter. The latter could mean an uncomfortable new neighbor for Syria’s traditional allies — and adversaries.
Finally, there is a chance that the turmoil in Syria will lead, sooner or later, to the emergence of a more open, modern, and secular society, and of more democratic governance. Certainly, there are important segments of Syrian society that seek a transition of this kind. This scenario, too, would be transforming. It could make Syria a real partner for peace with Israel, or at least ensure a stable security relationship across the Golan. It would make Syria an uncomfortable, even impossible partner for Iran – no bad thing from the perspective of transatlantic interests. And it could offer Europe a new partner in a refashioned strategy toward the southern Mediterranean. Without question, the emergence of a more open and tolerant regime in Damascus would transform Syrian relations with the United States, and offer France and others with historic links to Syria, a chance to participate in the reconstruction of the country. In the meantime, Europe, the United States, and Syria’s neighbors will also need to consider a range of less comfortable but perhaps more likely scenarios.
Ian O. Lesser is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington.