Reality Check

The Winners and Losers of Syria’s Civil War

And how the United States can still come out ahead.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images

Ask any intelligence analyst, policy planner, or public policy wonk — it’s really hard to see trees, the forest, or anything else for that matter when you’re in the eye of the hurricane.

We’re already deep into Last Chance 3.0 for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but the arc of its demise is still likely to take more twists and turns before the story ends. Most difficult to divine — and upon which so much of the future hinges — is who or what will emerge to rule in Damascus when the dust finally settles. Indeed, the bulk of the so-called silent majority of Syrians — Sunnis and Alawites alike responsible for Assad’s longevity — have not been spoken for.

Still, here’s a preliminary scorecard of who is likely to come out on top, ahead, behind, or underground.

Biggest Losers

1. Bashar and the Assads: Bashar’s DNA doomed him. Forget the trope of the modern man who was going to reform Syria. There was no way that growing up in a family whose nurture/nature meld was a cross between the Sopranos and the Corleones could have turned out any other way. Whether he’s shot crawling out of drainpipe like Qaddafi (unlikely), tried like Milosevic in the Hague (more unlikely), spends his life living in a dacha on the Moskva (getting warmer), or manages for a time to seek refuge in Alawistan, the end of the line is approaching. In this region, the only regimes that can be handed down generation after generation are the authoritarian kingly dynasties, never the brittle republics run by secular strongmen. Bashar is done; stick a fork in him. In the respect and legacy department, he’s going to make Rodney Dangerfield look good.

2. Alawites: Think post-Saddam Iraq without the American intervention. Another empowered minority (12-13 percent of the population) is about to become an aggrieved minority. Reconciliation and inclusiveness would be great in the new Syria. Sadly, there will be a lot of pressure to look back not forward, to settle scores, and to get even. With enough outside help, Syria may be lucky enough to avoid the worst kind of sectarian score-settling. This would likely require an international stabilization force, a great deal of money, and an enlightened policy on the part of big brother Arabs, particularly the Saudis and the Turks. Still, the biggest losers will be Alawites who benefitted from the regime’s largess and who are likely to end up poorer and less secure as the rising Sunnis divide the pie amongst themselves. Syria is in for an abrupt redistribution of economic and political power. And no one will feel this more forcefully than the Alawites, particularly if the Baath Party is disbanded or criminalized and Alawite military elites are prosecuted or stripped of command.

3. Christians: This won’t be a happy outcome for Christians, either. Assad’s departure could remove two important safeguards for Syria’s Christian community (roughly 10 percent of the population). First, as long as they remained in power, Alawites had a stake in legitimizing their own minority status by protecting fellow minorities. Second, the stability — false as it was — that the Assads guaranteed made minority status fairly secure as long as such groups did not challenge the regime.

As the Syrian system collapses, the only certainty is that Sunnis will dominate the new order. And if the state secularism that the Assads promoted evaporates, the Christians, particularly those who have cooperated closely with the regime, could find themselves increasingly marginalized in a more traditionally Sunni land.

4. Hezbollah: Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has been whistling past the graveyard lately in his support for Assad. Hezbollah will survive Assad’s fall — the organization is an authentic and dominant player in Lebanese politics, not some kind of remote-controlled proxy — but one of its two strongest patrons is about to be replaced by a Sunni (and most likely hostile) regime. To be sure, Iran is the group’s more important partner. But Syria — even while there were tensions with Hezbollah over the years — has been a faithful guarantor of weapons, intelligence, and muscle inside Lebanon. It has also provided some, though not much, deterrence against Israel. With Syria offline, it remains an open question whether Hezbollah could mount as forceful a response to external aggression — from Iran, Israel, or the United States — as it could have in the past.

5. Iran: The Iranians will survive this one too, but they will lose a strategic card. The Iranian-Syrian alliance has lasted for almost 40 years because it is mutually beneficial and because the two are not ideological competitors. The fall of Assad will upset this balance. If a Saudi Arabian-backed Sunni regime emerges in Damascus, Iran will fear being encircled and the "Shiite crescent" will be much less threatening. Iran’s window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict will also close. All of these developments will only augment Iran’s sense of insecurity and vulnerability. It may well lead to an even more determined effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

6. Iraq: The Shiite government of Nuri al-Maliki also has reason to fear Assad’s ouster — and it is likely that Iraqi-Syrian ties will be further strained. Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds will feel empowered by the rise of their brethren across the border in Syria and they will likely try to use that momentum to improve their own status at home. Syrian Kurds have already been coordinating with those in Iraq and taking refuge there as well. Should Kurds carve out their own autonomous entity within Syria, tensions will inevitably mount with both Iraq and Turkey.

7. Russia: Regardless of what happens in Syria, Russia will no longer enjoy the privileged position it once did. Syrians will not forget Moscow’s support for the Assads, which included military and financial aid, and the emergence of a Sunni regime — of whatever stripe — will be at odds with Vladimir Putin’s own aversion to Saudi-backed Islamists in Chechnya and the north Caucasus. If Assad does, in fact, try to create an Alawite statelet, and the Russians try to back it, matters will only get worse for Moscow. Among the great powers, there are no heroes in the Syrian saga — that goes for the United States, too. But the Russians will occupy a place of pride in the rogues’ gallery, together with Iran.

Big Winners: Are There Any?

Right now, it’s much easier to identify the losers in the Syrian story than the winners. Events over the past 18 months seem to have shaped the fate of the unlucky with more certainty than that of the putative winners. I’d like to put the Syrian people at the top of the winner’s list. After all, a brutal, thuggish, extractive regime is coming down and that shouldn’t be a bad thing.

If the arc is long enough, Syria will be in for better days. Syrian civil society has shown a remarkable degree of resilience, willingness to cooperate, and ability to mobilize in the face of ongoing horrors. Still, should post-Assad Syria be dominated by an exclusivist Sunni regime influenced even to a small degree by fundamentalist leanings and without the will or capacity to accommodate the needs of a full third of Syria’s people, the story could be much darker.

What we have right now is a group of wannabe winners, most with serious asterisks. Indeed, there’s not yet a slam-dunk, jackpot winner among them.

1. Lebanon: The good news is that the end of the Assads could mean a lifting of the jackboot that has been on Lebanon’s throat for a very long time now. Even with the formal withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus continued to meddle in Lebanese politics through its proxies, often with deadly effect. The fall of the Assads will also weaken Hezbollah.

The bad news is that an unstable Syria will continue to spill over into Lebanon, potentially stirring the pot of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Indeed, Syria’s traditional fear that Lebanon will become a breeding ground for coup plotting and conspiring with the Israelis will only increase. Ultimately, much will turn on whether or not Lebanon can take advantage of its newfound maneuvering space and forge more unity within its own ranks.

2. The Kurds: Syria’s ethnic minorities may fare better than its religious ones. Syria’s Kurds (roughly 9 percent of the population) are Sunnis and will be looking for increased recognition and perhaps autonomy. If cooler heads prevail in Turkey and among the Syrian opposition — both of whom so far oppose that goal — some kind of compromise might be reached. If not, the Kurds who now dominate much of Syria’s border with Turkey will be a source of tension and conflict within Syria and with Turkey, forging ties with Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly known as the PKK. It wouldn’t take much imagination to envision Turkish incursions into Syria to hit Kurdish separatists and break up cooperation between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.

3. Israel: The good news for the Israelis is that Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened by Assad’s fall. The bad news is that like so much of the Arab Spring/ Winter, the impending transition brings with it enormous uncertainty. What will happen to the 1974 disengagement agreement, which has made the Golan Heights the quietest space in the Middle East? What about Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, the largest in the region? What about foreign jihadists or the character of the new Syrian government? Will Syria revert back to the kind of instability that plagued the country before the Assads came to power? Will its government be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood as in Egypt? If Iran feels encircled by hostile Sunnis, how acutely will the Israelis perceive the same challenge?

4. Turkey: Ankara is going to have to get used to the new Syria after enjoying a remarkably positive run with the Assads. Depending on the character of the Sunni government in Damascus, the Turks — as the region’s leading non-Arab Sunni power — could become quite close to the new Syrian government, enhancing both their political and economic influence. Yet cooperation is far from a foregone conclusion. The Kurdish problem, as well as tensions between Turkish Sunnis and their own Alevis (the Turkish name for Alawites, who make up 15 percent of the population), could spark serious tensions and even violence.

5. Saudi Arabia: For the Saudis, the fall of the Assads carries real advantages if they can influence the new Sunni regime that emerges. The visit of Manaf Tlass — the son of the former Sunni minister of defense — to Saudi Arabia was an intriguing indication of what the Saudis may be thinking. Whether an establishment regime figure like Tlass would be acceptable to Free Syrian Army elements on the ground is another matter. But Syria will need friendly, rich Arabs. For Riyadh, Syria has been part of the great game of blocking Iranian influence. And if they don’t overplay their Sunni cards — and encourage the new government in Damascus to be inclusive with Alawites and Christians — the Saudis might actually steal a march on Tehran.

6. The United States: Unlike the other authoritarian regimes it dealt with over the years, the United States never got much out of the Assads in matters of peacemaking or strategic advantage. A brutally repressive regime without much redemptive quality is on its way out — and good riddance. For now, the biggest gain will be a weakening of Iran. But there could be a downside as well if Tehran becomes even more determined to push ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Assuming America doesn’t intervene militarily, some ground will also have been lost among Syrians who believe it should have done something. But this can be recouped if Washington can help coordinate the international effort to address Syria’s post-Assad needs.

The United States is an inherently status quo power, but it has values and interests that also compel it to support change. Its reaction to so much of the so-called Arab Spring reflects that ambivalence and will continue to do so in the future; it will also limit American influence in Syria. Should a Sunni regime emerge that is Islamist in character or just unstable, Washington will have an adequately tough time finding its balance. Just look at Egypt, where the U.S. has a strong relationship with the military and a thirty-year-old aid program, and still not much leverage. In Syria, it has almost no advantages. Nor does Washington have the resources to lead a multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. Indeed, the only way Washington can possibly play a major role is if Syria follows Egypt and Jordan and signs a peace treaty with Israel. But the odds of this happening are slim to none.

The United States has much to lose if Syria devolves into sectarian conflict or worse, fragments. It has much to gain if it doesn’t. But we need to be real here: Despite all the planning and working groups, Washington doesn’t have much influence to shape the outcome either way. And let’s face it: The struggle for Syria is going to be long and painful. If Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya — despite all of their failings and dysfunction — represent the best of what we can expect, Syria could easily come to represent the worst. And if that comes to pass, the Syrian story will end badly for everyone.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2