Putting Syria Back Together Again

Bashar al-Assad may fall, but is the worst yet to come?


The uprising in Syria is only getting bloodier. Prominent human rights organizations have estimated that the death toll from the conflict now exceeds 30,000 people. And it is only getting worse: More than 300 people were reportedly killed on Sept. 26, making it one of the uprising’s bloodiest days. Unsurprisingly, there has also been a corresponding spike in the number of people fleeing the carnage. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees now puts the number of Syrian refugees at 235,300, with 103,416 people seeking asylum in just August. Those are registered refugees — the real number escaping Syria is likely to be significantly higher.

As hard as it is to believe, the next chapter of the Syrian uprising — after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad — may be even more challenging. The protests in front of U.S. embassies in Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa — as well as the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya — suggest that ending an autocracy is only the beginning of a long, complicated post-Arab Spring rebuilding process. Unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the odds of a successful transition to democracy may be even lower for Syria; research by Gene Sharp and others suggests that violent revolutions more often than not result in new, illiberal governments.

This leaves Syria with a paradox: The more rebels wage a war against the Assad regime, the less likely they are to achieve democracy, reconstruction, or reconciliation. It also leaves the United States with a paradox: The longer it declines to intervene, the greater the costs — the more deeply embedded Islamist radicals become and the stronger the enmity between Syria’s ethnicities and sects grows.

The guns of Syria’s August are not growing quiet in September. The reality is that Syria will only get worse in the absence of international intervention. And whatever help the United States provides now will be dwarfed by what it will be asked to contribute in helping the country rebuild. This month at a conference in Berlin, the Syrian National Council estimated that $12 billion would be needed for immediate support in the first six months after the fall of the regime.

But Syria’s troubles run deeper than its present crisis — indeed, the country has several fundamental flaws that together will comprise America’s greatest foreign-policy challenge in the Middle East.

First, regional powers view Syria’s diversity as an opportunity to establish permanent bases of influence. As in Lebanon, Syria’s future political parties will likely owe their allegiances to regional benefactors. With little experience in democratic competition, they will be ripe for regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf countries to effectively buy sizable voting blocs. In addition to these conflicting international influences, the country’s ethnic and sectarian tensions will cripple effective post-Assad governance. There will be violent consequences of this political fallout, as deep scars from the present conflict will likely lead to simmering violence in the post-Assad period.

Former regime supporters will also attempt to play a spoiler role. The next Syrian government will only win confidence if it can judiciously prosecute former regime officials and creatively cooperate with disparate Free Syrian Army brigades to make concrete security improvements. Former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, preached that security was more important than liberty; the new government must offer something better than this false choice.

Finally, the Assad regime retains power today partly because it has reinforced the notion that democracy is the curse that burdens countries like Iraq and Lebanon. Although they face a ruthless crackdown, opposition activists tell me their greatest challenge is not the regime — but trying to sell a liberal, democratic vision of Syria to its people.

These challenges are, of course, interrelated, and together they will lead to a weak, ineffective government unable to confront Syria’s myriad challenges — prosecuting former regime members, reallocating scarce resources (Syria has lost more than half its water supply in the past decade), finding jobs for Free Syrian Army fighters, and overhauling its oligarchic crony-capitalist economic system. Overall, Syria’s future challenge will be equal parts Libyan demilitarization, Iraqi de-Baathification, and Lebanese desectarianism.

So, if bringing down Assad is hard, rebuilding Syria in the aftermath is going to be expensive, complicated, and messy. The complexities of the post-Arab Spring Middle East do not allow for simple solutions, but serious efforts are under way. The U.S. Institute of Peace-moderated "The Day After" project, for example — which has brought Syrians together with technical experts to map out the elements of a societal overhaul, like writing a constitution and establishing rule of law — is one attempt to frame the landscape of a post-Assad Syria.

But forums like these remain theoretical if the United States does not start in-country development assistance to help pre-existing, identified grassroots opposition networks build the necessary tools to end the bloody stalemate and ensure Syria’s transition does not devolve into chaos and continued violence. The lesson of past U.S. engagements in the Middle East is not that the United States should avoid intervention — but that it must try in Syria, as the country’s future without foreign assistance would be intolerable. Intervention won’t be pretty, easy, or cheap, but it is better than the alternatives.

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