The defections in the last few days of a senior Syrian republican guard commander and Damascus’ ambassador to Iraq could be a tipping point. It has taken a remarkably long time for cracks in the regime to show. But these two defections could be the beginning of an avalanche, one that would sweep away Bashar al Asad’s murderous regime.
If so, we need to begin considering seriously whether the international community and the Syrian opposition are ready for the difficult days ahead. Syria, unlike Libya, has limited oil resources and frozen assets abroad. It is a more diverse society than Tunisia, with significant Alawite, Christian, Druze and Kurdish minorities. It has seen a great deal of violence.
So what should we be expecting? The country will be broke at the end of this year and a half of contestation. It will have several armed forces on its territory: the Syrian army and intelligence forces (including non-uniformed thugs), the Free Syria Army and various neighborhood watch and other militias. Sectarian resentment against Alawites, who form the mainstay of the regime even if some have joined the revolution, will be ferocious. Some Christians and Druze will also be afraid of retaliation. Large numbers of regime supporters may flood into neighboring countries (there are still hundreds of thousands of Qaddafi-supporting Libyans in Tunisia and Egypt). Refugees now in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon will flow back into Syria to reclaim and defend their homes. Weapons will be circulating freely, with some risk that the regime’s heavier armament and chemical weapons will fall into the hands of malefactors. Sunni extremists (whether Al Qaeda or other varieties) will see a chaotic situation and try to take advantage of it.
I see no sign that the international community is ready for post-Asad Syria. I know why: we are tired of doing post-war reconstruction, which has posed expensive and seemingly insurmountable difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’d like Syria to be like Libya and Tunisia, which are taking reasonably good care of themselves. Or like Yemen, which is bumbling along under the former autocrat’s vice president with help from the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Or at worst like Egypt, where the military is clumsily trying to steer a revolution that has managed so far to avoid massive violence.
I doubt that is possible in Syria. Too much blood has been spilled for the revolution to entrust the army with steering anything, even itself. The army is unlikely to evaporate, as Qaddafi’s did in Libya. While many of its draftees will happily go over to a revolutionary regime, the elite units of the republican guard are unlikely to do that. Nor will the Alawite paramilitaries known as shabiha.
I’ve seen little sign of serious thinking or preparation for the big challenges ahead: creating a safe and secure environment, separating combatants, minimizing sectarian violence, providing for returnees and refugees, re-establishing law and order, beginning a political transition and somehow funding the effort. Nothing about the Syrian National Council’s performance in recent months suggests that it is capable of handling the situation with the modicum of legitimacy and skill that the Libyan National Transitional Council managed. Nothing about the Syrian army’s performance suggests that it could do even as well as the shambolic performance of the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Nothing about the UN’s performance in trying to implement the Annan peace plan suggests it can take on Syria and be effective.
We are in for a rough ride in Syria. Post-war transitions are difficult in all situations. This one will be among the toughest.
PS: Nothing in Steve Heydemann’s The End Game in Syria convinces me the situation is better than the doubtful one I describe above.