Prolonging Assad’s Downfall in Syria Risks Regional Spillover

WASHINGTON--Bashar al-Assad has lost all hope of victory against an uprising that has metastasized — through the atrocities committed by his regime — into a corrosive civil war. By his own confession, Assad is trapped in a no-win conundrum, between determined rebels seeking to eliminate him and bruised loyalists susceptible to betrayal. Syria appears fated to continue its descent into further brutality, barring a realignment of international interests that ends the ongoing calamity.


Alas, that outcome is far from imminent. Some international stakeholders — Iran and Russia in particular — have an active interest in prolonging the Syrian crisis. Others, notably the United States, believe that intervention is impossible without international consensus. The quest for this elusive unanimity has resulted in only greater bloodshed and, without a change in course, may result in an even more dramatic humanitarian catastrophe. A coalition of the willing capable of halting Syria’s internecine violence and the disintegration of the regional order is long overdue.


But in the absence of robust action, the systematic destruction of Syria’s cities, towns, and villages by regime forces has created vast swaths of ungovernable territory void of infrastructure and resources. Much of this devastated landscape, both urban and rural, has been abandoned, with those remaining reverting to barter and warlordism to ensure survival. The once-cosmopolitan city of Aleppo is now dotted with apocalyptic scenes, courtesy of the destruction caused by the regime’s air power and artillery. Hama, Homs, Idlib, Ma’arat, and countless other cities now feature fully obliterated neighborhoods.


Herein lie the ingredients of further tragedies. The past two years in Syria have seen fear eliminated as a means of central control, with no stabilizing alternative able to emerge. The world watched, seemingly helplessly, while Syrian civic leaders and civil society entities were hunted down and eliminated by the regime’s henchmen. This ensured that, in its retreat, the Damascus government was replaced by a Somalia-like configuration of warlords and militias assuming local control through force and intimidation. This diffusion of power is exacerbated by the effects of internal displacement, and has become an exportable threat as a result of cross-border refugee flows.


With its considerable resources and deliberate crisis management, Turkey may have been able to contain the effects of its share of Syrian refugee outflow. The situation is more fluid in Iraq, where the Kurdish regional government is directly involved in Syria’s Kurdish-majority areas and Baghdad seems uncertain as to how to navigate the multiple demands stemming from the Syrian crisis in light of its own internal challenges. While it remains concerned, Israel’s longstanding enmity with Syria has temporarily shielded it from direct spillover. Far more vulnerable is the position of the Jordanian monarchy, where the accumulated pressure of the Syrian refugee crisis and an emboldened internal opposition threatens the current national order.


However, the most affected of Syria’s neighbors is undoubtedly Lebanon. With a patently weak government, perennially afflicted by sectarian divisions, Lebanon has had to tackle an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees. Its porous borders with Syria have witnessed two-way traffic, with Lebanese fighters joining both sides of the Syrian conflict. It may be merely a matter of time and circumstance before the fighting returns to their homeland. This development may provide Hezbollah with an opportunity to establish direct control over Lebanon, thus balancing out the impact of losing what has been described as its Syrian “back-office.” Symbiotically, the al-Nusrah Front — al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise — is slated to take further advantage of the expected chaos.


Whether much of the current Syrian tragedy could have been avoided by more determined actions from the transatlantic alliance has become the subject of historical, rather than practical, import. The Somalization of Syria now seems inevitable. The dire implications of this outcome for the region, however, are a certainty only if the United States and Europe continue their current course of waiting the Syrian crisis out.


Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.

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