Syria: Moving Beyond the Stalemate – July 2015
SUMMARY OF DELIBERATIONS OF PARTICIPANTS PROSPECTS FOR GETTING BEYOND THE STALEMATE –
Prof. Raymond Hinnebusch, Director, Centre for Syrian Studies
The Syria 2015 Conference, “Getting Beyond the Stalemate,” held several panels focusing on the prospects for a diplomatically-driven political compromise in the Syrian conflict. The panels included several internationally recognized experts on Syria or diplomats who had been involved in various capacities in consultations with the Syrian parties; knowledgeable Syrians responded with their own insights. While there was no consensus view, the deliberations suggested several alternative possible scenarios.
Scenario I: Geneva III. The majority view of conference panellists was that, despite the seeming existence for a long time of a “hurting stalemate” (in which neither side can realistically expect to “win”), , the moment, as of summer 2015, was not “ripe” for successful negotiations. However, a minority view was that Geneva III might, nevertheless, come about because of the activism of the UN special representative, Staffan de Mistura, as well as efforts by Moscow and Cairo to explore possible areas of agreement between the parties. Insofar as Geneva II failed chiefly because the regime had believed it had the upper hand and was therefore uninterested in making concessions, it seemed possible that, with Damascus now on the defensive and being urged by its patrons, Iran and Russia, to retrench and possibly to be more flexible, that regime obduracy might now be easing.
A split in the regime, more plausible in view of evidence of some infighting about regime elites, raised the prospect of increased pressure from within on the regime to seriously bid for a negotiated transition in which the remnants of the state/regime would share power with those elements of the opposition willing to strike such a deal. This would presumably involve a transition period of power sharing in which the role of Bashar al-Asad and his inner circle would be increasingly constrained and checked by some sort of balance of power on the ground as well as by international guarantees.
Working against this scenario, however, was the fact that the opposition now appears to believe that it has the upper hand; emboldened by regime setbacks, from Idlib, Jisr esh-Shaghour to Palmyra, as well as its increasingly apparent vulnerabilities, but even more so by the newly cooperating Sunni axis linking Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, coordinating and backing the most militant jihadist elements against the regime, Asad’s enemies apparently now believed they had the momentum, could win militarily and saw no need for a compromise settlement.
Given the fact that the moment is not, seemingly “ripe” for a negotiated settlement, two alternative pathways seemed possible, protracted conflict and regime collapse.
Scenario 2: Protracted Conflict, Spheres of Influence: First, is the possibility that protracted conflict will continue since the expectation of victory by the opposition is unrealistic; the balance of power between regime and opposition has periodically shifted, without either side ever getting a permanent upper hand, since neither has the decisive combination of resources to prevail. Indeed, given that the conflict is now at least a three- sided contest among regime, opposition and ISIS, “victory” by any party seems all the more problematic. However, this deepened phase of conflict is likely to be one of increased spheres of influence in which regional actors increase their intervention and seek to consolidate secure territory cleansed of opposition forces. Iran and Hizbollah will seek to consolidate their position in Damascus, Kalamoun, western Homs and Tartous. Jordan and Gulf (and Israel) will support opposition FSA groups in Deraa and Qunaitra. Turkey and Qatar will support Islamist factions in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo that seek to overrun the regime-controlled part of Aleppo city. IS will preserve its own state in the East, battling the Kurds, Islamist rivals and the regime. The de-facto separation of the country will harden.
Notwithstanding this, a second possible pathway is the fall of the regime. Nobody was predicting this outcome in the immediate future but regime vulnerabilities have become more apparent and many of its opponents appeared looking forward to such a “victory.” Supposing that the regime did suddenly unravel and collapse, it is not self-evident, however, what would follow and at least three possible pathways had some plausibility and evidence for them could be seen in the presentations at the conference.
Scenario 3: Democratic Transformation: First, for those who put their faith in the power and intentions of “moderate” Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood as well as in the discourse of the exiled National Coalition, which advocates a civil state, there was hope that regime collapse could lead to democratization, possibly with Islamic characteristics.
Scenario 4: A Caliphate: Other panellists, believed the more radical elements of the opposition had the upper hand on the ground, notably Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and various other jihadi groups, making a salafist/jihadist-dominated Islamist state—a “caliphate”—of sorts, the more likely outcome, although this depended on the fractured Islamist groups ability to share power or on the weaker groups bandwagoning with/and submitting to a dominant faction.
Scenario 5: Anarchy: A third possible pathway was fragmentation and deepened struggle for power. In this scenario, the regime might lose control of all or parts of Damascus, but, already considerably de-centralized and “militia-ized”, it and its various local components would remain active in the power struggle and would retrench to more defensive Western parts of the country. Rival jihadi Islamists, including the two al-Qaida avatars, Nusra and IS, would fall on each other in a struggle for dominance. Localized warlords and militias would attempt to defend their own turf, with the PYD in Kurdish areas the most successful. Considerably increased refugees flows, ethnic cleansing and destruction would accompany the power struggle.
At the time of the conference, the preponderance of evidence and opinion could not be said to be behind any one of the scenarios. Mixes of several of them were also possible.
I see the conflict in Syria moving in the direction of a tenuous and unstable ‘mix’ between scenarios 1 & 2. The other three listed scenarios, while not inconceivable, are, to my mind, far-fetched in varying degrees. Looking more deeply at the Geneva III pathway versus the Protracted Conflict road there is a strong possibility that they could both co-exist separately , and even feed on each other symbiotically well into the future. Time, however, in the absence of serious progress on the political-diplomatic front will, necessarily favour the strengthening of the foundations of a de facto division into spheres of influence, even if the fighting itself is much reduced , or even brought to a halt as the belligerents finally succumb to the impossibility of battlefield victory. However, such a shaky denouement, while responding to the potential fatigue of the fighters on the ground and to the cries of horror and anguish that may eventually become too unbearable to the eyes and ears of the most hardened of hearts locally and internationally, will create its own strategic challenges that may prove just as intolerable. Chief of these challenges is the ‘Daesh’ factor and how it would fit into such a blurred patchwork of claimed territorial ‘warlord’ domains. Regional and international stakeholders in the Syrian conflict may be happy to agree–at least tacitly– to an unofficial sharing of the spoils among most of the armed contingents that answer to them. But Daesh represents a different model altogether: a loose and very explosive cannon that constitutes a clear and present danger to all (with the possible exception, at least tactically, of Turkey, for which Daesh is less of an immediate menace than the Kurdish PKK affiliated YPD). That ever-more looming threat from Daesh may arguably swing matters in favour of a Geneva 3 scenario. Pointers to such an eventually have recently been signalled by both Washington and Moscow. The recent ‘summoning’ to the Russian capital of the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, to be told of the necessity of Syria entering into a regional alliance to combat Daesh–an alliance deemed by an unnerved Muallem to require a miracle–is one such pointer. It is clear to the Syrian leadership that the drive to building such a coalition entails the necessity of a ‘political settlement’ within Syria that can then mobilise the country for the common cause of fighting Daesh. Meaning of course a transformation of the regime and the sidelining if not the complete removal of Assad, which remains a sine qua non for any putative regional and international alliance, at least in the eyes of the major power-brokers -Washington, Riyadh, Ankara- with whom Moscow hopes to engage in what it regards as an urgent mission against a close enemy whose threat it can ill-afford to ignore. Much will surely also depend on Iran, which, to the Syrian regime, remains the best bulwark against the possible softening of Moscow’s position. In that respect the dynamic created by the expected agreement over Iran’s nuclear future will be the focus of intense scrutiny in the months to come.
Ghayth Armanazi is a Syrian media specialist and former diplomat based in London.
An element missing from the given scenarios is Washington’s influence on developments in Syria. It could of course be argued that support from Russia and Iran assists the al-Asad regime not to “hurt too much”, while the sponsors of the moderate opposition, Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, France, USA and UK, provide a similar lifeline to the opposition forces. However, the perception that Washington is not committed to end the conflict has not received scrutiny. Even if the USA is constrained in its policy on Syria, the perception by the parties to the conflict that the USA does not have an interest in bringing the conflict to an immediate end will influence their respective actions. It will also eliminate any chance of success for a Geneva III, notwithstanding the efforts of the UN Special Representative. In this context scenario 2 appears most likely where regional actors increase their intervention and a political solution is postponed until such a time as the UNSC can reach consensus on Syria.
Hanlie Booysen is enrolled as a PhD candidate at Victoria University in Wellington (NZ). Her research is on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s policy on governance, with a specific focus on the Brotherhood’s commitment to a civil, democratic state in the wake of the Syrian uprising.
I think it unlikely that Geneva III will get very far mainly because the Iran deal is not signed and sealed. We need to see what happens in Congress. But I do see a negotiated settlement with a longish period of transition, if the UN Special Envoy can get Security Council backing for that. Recent polls in Syria show that nearly 60% of the population prefers – even today – a negotiated settlement and transition between the Asad inner circle and more enlightened Ba’thists leading up to more political parties [ not just Islamists] taking part in governance over time.
Dr. Dawn Chatty is Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration and former Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, 2011-2014
There are two views: 1) what I think is likely to happen and 2) what I think should happen. 1) As things are at present the prospects for resolution are very low. Conflict has become a way of life for most parties. There are enough arms and resentments for the conflict to go on indefinitely. The Lebanese civil war lasted for fifteen years. 2) What should happen is to encourage talking and listening to all parties, to assume that nobody is beyond the pale and to think (at present) only in the long term. How do the various parties see Syria, given its multicultural make-up, its human and material resources, in 2025? How does one strive to get there? Even here, there are currently irreconcilable positions: the repudiation of the internationally accepted borders; the lack of legitimacy of any of the parties in the conflict. In some ways, it is necessary to reach a way of living with the unacceptable. The situation may be different after a year. What is clear to me is that the resolution lies in the hands of Syrians, and that “western” intervention will add to the problems and settle nothing. There is a case for neighbouring countries to get involved – they already are. The end of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda followed military intervention from immediately neighbouring countries.
Dr Peter Clark OBE is a consultant, writer and translator. He has degrees from Keele University and the University of Leicester.
David W. Lesch
There has been a flurry of activity over the past couple of weeks that could have serious consequences for Syria. There is, of course, the nuclear deal with Iran, the primary backer of the Syrian regime. Turkey has belatedly entered the fray directly against the Islamic State (ISIS) by carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets (as well as Kurdish positions in Iraq), giving the green light to the US to utilize Incalik air force base that greatly enhances the ability of US forces to carry out its own air strikes against ISIS, agreeing with the US to establish some sort of safe zone in northern Syria astride the Turkish border, ostensibly to house Syrian refugees and Syrian opposition forces committed to attacking the IS (and not Assad regime forces), and intensifying a domestic campaign to root out IS elements in Turkey in the wake of IS suicide bombings. Turkey is the most influential regional player with regard to the mixture of Syrian opposition forces arrayed against Assad.
US and Russian leaders have actually said some nice things about each other, primarily related to the diplomatic success of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Both the US and Russia, backing different sides in the Syrian conflict and having supported a growing list of international conferences aimed at a negotiated settlement of the crisis, have long been trying to find a diplomatic off-ramp out of the Syrian quagmire that preserves their interests and prevents the situation from spiralling too far out of control. Finally, Assad gave a public speech on Monday that recognized his predicament by admitting to manpower shortages and touting the value of strategic contraction, suggesting that the hawkish elements in the regime are, for now, in remission. Out of this head-spinning stuff naturally sprout opportunities to make some real progress toward a political settlement of a war that has killed over a quarter of a million and displaced half of the Syrian population. It also creates the potential for missed opportunities. More alarming, by swinging and missing, diplomats could even make the situation worse.
Let’s examine the component parts and potential possibilities. If the Iran deal survives Congress and is implemented, most believe US-Iran relations could go in one of two directions. First, the new regional dynamic created by the agreement could lead to more cooperation in the Middle East that could ameliorate several concurrent conflicts (first and foremost in Syria) toward a more realistic regional balance of power. Or, second, Teheran and Washington expended so much political capital (domestically and regionally) in getting the deal through that any sort of diplomatic cooperation will be long in coming as they shore up their domestic political bases and regional allies. The parties should, against the odds, work to make sure the former happens.
To the cynic, Turkey’s actions against ISIS are self-serving. They are responses to President Erdogan’s weakened domestic position in the wake of the surprising losses suffered by the AKP in recent parliamentary elections amid growing domestic discontent over the government’s Syria policy. The true cynic may even conclude all this is simply cover for Turkish repression of and attacks against the PKK and its allies in Syria and Iraq in its ever-vigilant attempts to prevent the emergence of a viable Kurdish state rising out of the ashes of two failed states. But maybe Ankara has finally realized that ISIS is its enemy, and any cooperation (the blind eye version) with it would be only temporary before the historic enmity between radical Salafism and Turkish/Ottoman Sunni Islam manifests itself yet again. The latest IS suicide bombings in Turkey suggest it already has. Additionally, the Turks are probably quite wary of how the US has tacitly allied itself with Kurdish elements in both Syria and Iraq against ISIS in a way reminiscent of US policy in Afghanistan following 9/11 when the US successfully allied itself with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Perhaps Erdogan believes Turkey had best join the anti-ISIS coalition, thus help control it and gain from it while by default lessening the Kurdish role. For its part, the US need tread very carefully or else be accused of again abandoning the Kurds on the altar of strategic self-interest.
For Russia and the US, all of these moving parts suggest a joint empowering of diplomatic efforts, led by the UN, to once again try to bring the various parties to the conflict to the table. As it has been since the beginning, one of the main problems is finding a representative leadership that can speak for a critical mass of the Syria opposition less ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Various other conservative Syrian Islamist opposition groups have taken pains of late to try to portray themselves as more palatable to Washington. If the Obama administration and other Western powers can lower the bar for entry into an inclusive opposition front, one that has out of necessity made moves to coagulate over the past six months (with commensurate battlefield success), then, perhaps, there might be something for a UN effort to play with–and of which Damascus will be increasingly wary and with whom it might be willing to negotiate in earnest. Washington and Moscow also must exert pressure to get their regional allies to play along as well; indeed, if Turkey has shifted its Syria policy based more on strategic interests than domestic politics or anti-Kurdish motives, and if Iran sees the nuclear deal as a bridge toward a more realistic balance of power rather than a stepping stone to deepen their position in the Middle East, perhaps there is diplomatic space for a Turkish-Iranian modus vivendi pushed by Moscow and Washington.
Anything is a long shot at this point, but can all of this be done while maintaining the myriad of strategic interests of the stakeholders? Possibly, and we can thank the Islamic State for that. But any end to the conflict is just the beginning of rebuilding Syria, and unless there is a viable and agreeable vision of governance over the long-term that offers dignity and opportunity to everyone, why would anyone sign on? This is where the work really is done below the level of high diplomacy. They must be balanced and work in tandem–or else we will all just swing and miss.
David Warren Lesch is a lecturer, author and commentator on Middle East history and politics. He is Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
I am among those who think that protracted conflict is the more likely scenario for the years to come, but I don’t think that it is because the situation isn’t “ripe”. I don’t think that mutually hurting stalemate/ripeness could ever apply to the Syrian conflict because of its zero-sum game nature for the incumbent sides (i.e. the Asad clan and Iran). Ripeness can lead to a conflict resolution when there is a cake that can reasonably be divided (tellingly, the Middle Eastern examples Zartman used in his talks were cases of inter-state territorial conflicts, not revolutionary wars). In the present case, no such division can be envisioned by either the Asad clan, that cannot reasonably hope to survive a power-sharing arrangement (even if members of the current regime or recent defectors can); even in the Yemeni scenario, Saleh had to go), nor Iran, which is not defending a degree of influence in Syria, but strategic assets that would not be secure under any other regime.
Dr Thomas Pierret is a Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh
None of the scenarios adequately takes account of the complexity of the Syrian situation. While all actors should continue to pursue the most favourable scenario that has been endorsed by the UN, a political solution based on the Geneva Communique, other factors, especially the possible collapse of the regime, Iran’s intervention to keep it afloat and the rise of radical Islamic powers all complicate such efforts. The pressing factor I think that is missing from the arguments is how the US and Europe are failing to keep a unified consistent position in support of a transition in Syria. I fear diplomacy at the moment is only buying time in prolonging the conflict, which by itself is feeding anger and leaving the vacuum for radicalism. We keep going into a vicious circle where inaction by the West leads to more violence which leads into radicalism and extremism and the latter imposes action by the West (as we can see now with coalition against ISIS), which is only making things worse for the moderate Syrians who are turning radical, undermining the centrist forces; today for example, members from Al Nusra have arrested FSA fighters who are trained by the USA. This is adding to the fragmentation of the opposition and is leaving the political arena to Islamic influences coming with Gulf money that are imposing their agenda on the ground. I fear unless a solution deals with the main source of destruction and brutality in Syria, i.e the regime, the scenario of protracted conflict is the more likely one.
Lina Sinjab is a Syrian journalist who works for the BBC & is a recipient of several awards for her coverage of Syria.
Michael C Williams
The Search for a Diplomatic Solution to the Syrian Conflict
More than four years after the outbreak of the revolt against the government of President Bashar al Assad a negotiated settlement remains as elusive as ever. There can be little doubt that the inability of the international community to make any meaningful progress is the greatest failure of diplomacy in our age. History is likely to judge the Security Council’s inability to advance the cause of peace harshly.
The reasons for this failure are several. Firstly, the seeming intractability of the conflict was difficult enough when there were two actors, the regime and the supporters of the Syrian National Coalition. The early entry into the battle of the Lebanese Hezbollah as an active participant on the side of the Damascus government was a portent of the growing complexity. By 2014 there was a third actor ISIS or the Islamic State. Secondly, after the defeat in the British parliament of a motion in 2013 to support US air attacks on the regime over its use of chemical weapons, it has become clear that the Obama Administration and the West generally are not willing to contemplate serious military intervention or indeed exert pressure other than sanctions on the regime. After the disastrous Iraq war of 2003 President Obama has been determined to avoid further US military intervention on the ground in the Middle East. To a considerable extent the removal of the very threat of intervention has seriously undermined his diplomatic hand. Now with less than eighteen months in office his political strength is set to diminish further.
A third reason mitigating against a diplomatic solution has been the breakdown of relations between the West and Russia. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council Russia has used its diplomatic strength to advance its own interests, but been a willing partner in many international agreements. In the 1990’s it supported international agreements to end the wars in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Under President Putin a harder line has been apparent first in Georgia in 2008 and more strikingly over Ukraine in 2014. It is difficult to imagine circumstances of a settlement of the conflict without Russia, barring an unexpected implosion of the Assad regime.
Against this dark landscape a glimmer of hope has been offered by the negotiations between the P5 and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other over the latter’s growing nuclear capability. The deal reached on July 14 will lead to a gradual removal of sanctions and an inflow of western investment. Iran is likely to be more accommodating in its diplomatic realtions.Hopes of a more moderate disposition by Teheran have however to be moderated by its close alliance with Hezbullah. Syria, and the Assad regime, have always been the conduit through which arms and supplies have been transferred by Iran to its Mediterranean ally. A rupture in those arrangements would not be allowed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Command. (IRGC) Moreover, most Arab countries will be fearful of an Iran freed of international sanctions.
Looking ahead the arrival of a new US President in January 2017 and a reset of the relationship with Russia at the time of writing seem the one hope, albeit too distant for the Syrian people.
It all depends on how far Beyond (the Stalemate) we are considering: Far enough away nothing is excluded. But for the next year or two, I would count on something like Scenario 2, if only by process of elimination. #3 is for dreamers. Even when it’s all over, Syrian fragmentation, now accentuated by sectarian rifts, can contribute to a democracy only when the notion of a Syrian nationhood has been restored. So, is it ever all over? #4 is the same. The khilafa is no basis for nationhood, and it will fall apart of infighting the further it spreads. There is nothing so divisive as religious unity. #1 is simply not ripe. The stalemate has to be longer lasting and recognized as such by the parties (MHS is a subjective appreciation, not just an objective occurrence). As noted, Geneva II was undercut by regime confidence; any Geneva III is now undercut by the confidence of various rebel groups. Furthermore ISIS has no mind for negotiation; you don’t negotiate with God and until that link is worn away by worldly events, it will be a barrier. #5 is prelude to #4. At the moment, some sort of fragmentation of the regime itself is to be expected, maybe a stab at negotiations between a breakaway group (maybe even as assassination of Asad) and some rebels against ISIS. The conflict is most likely to settle down into a Scenario 5 situation (soft stable self-serving stalemate) with fighting around the edges of each piece and much fatigue, viewed by all as preferable to negotiations or heightened fighting in which some groups may lose.
Dr. Ira William Zartman is Professor Emeritus at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University
Regarding the five scenarios, I will give my assessment about which scenario I think is likely to emerge and why, and why other scenarios are less likely. Although I am convinced that none of the five scenarios is exclusive, that a mix of scenarios will likely emerge at different points in time. Elaborating on the reasons why scenarios are more or less lilely, I will give a short ranking.
Protraction of the conflict and geographical division of Syria (scenario 2) is most likely to occur with a deepening division of territory in four main regions and influence spheres;
FSA/Rebel territory controlled through al-itilâf al-watanî as-sûrî with assistance from Turkey and Jordan, these are mainly northwestern areas and the Southern Front whereby institutions will be rebuild, latest development is the re-opening of the University of Aleppo as higher education institute in the liberated areas. Developments such as issuing Syrian passports, birth certificates and establishing a new Syrian National Soccer team, based in Turkey are already on-going and will continue to be implemented by Al Itilaf,of which the President and Ministries are based in Gaziantep, Turkey. Continuous tensions will remain between the secular fighting groups and Islamist factions, with Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam as the major contenders for control of power. However as the Southern Front and the liberated areas in the North West are in the hands of the majority of secular forces, this area is most likely, together with Kurdish areas, to know some form of democratization process. In terms of media and press freedom, the Syrian video activists of my research designate these geographical areas as the most “free” for local journalists. The major security risks are coming from infiltration by IS groups and Islamist extremists such as Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam. The FSA police force is not sufficient to maintain effective control. Furthermore, these areas are mostly affected by the aerial bombardments mainly by the Syrian regime army, barrelbombs and shellings.
Kurdish controlled territories, Afrin towards Hassakah, self-designated as “Rojava” where rapid state building activities have been taking place as well, Kurdish nationalism and cultural expressions have exploded in these areas, all Arabic roadsigns are replaced with Kurdish language signs. These area have had the advantage of not having been targeted by Assad regime aerial bombardments, therefore much less infrastructural destruction have taken place. The Kurds have taken this opportunity to establish their national areas and will not be willing to give up their newly established Kurdish territories. Institutionalisation as begun and in all of the institutions in Rojava there are two co-chair persons, one man and one woman. In every town and village there is a Women’s house providing advise and support. The effective control to the areas was given by the Assad regime in 2012 to the PYD. With an increasingly stronger fighting force in the form of YPG and the YPJs (women units) and strong support of the local Kurdish population, these territories will be difficult to incorporate unless these areas will be included in a federal organization of Syria. Turkey will do great effort to curb Kurdish expansion.
Islamic State controlled territory whereby IS will lose the goodwill of people, have difficulties to sustain for a longterm period and thus will harden the oppression of local people and carry out more brutalities and human rights violations. The Islamic State has been rapidly building and replacing state-like institutions and renaming provinces into emirates and wilayas, however the Islamic State fighters does not have a large support base locally, the local members of the Islamic States have pledged allegiance mainly due to financial reasons, whilst the foreign fighters and Iraqi members have tried to intermarry into Syrian tribes, the brutality of the group has set a lot of very bad resentment. The draconic laws and the disconnect with the local population make the sustainability of the Islamic State questionable, they will only be able to maintain their position by continuing the iron fist and torture of the locals, there is a huge division between representatives of IS and Syrian locals and so if there is any opportunity to bring down IS rule, the local people will support FSA and YPG factions in bringing down IS. What is often not mentioned in analyses of the Islamic State are the swats of Syrian territory where FSA-YPG coalitions like “Burqaan Al Furat” have been able to defend their neighborhoods and defeat both the Syrian Army and Hezbollah militias AND also drive out the Islamic State and where Syrians are continuing against all odds to build institutions to maintain some kind of civil governance structure (long before coalition bombings started on IS strongholds in 2014)
Assad regime controlled territory whereby the oppression of local people is deepened and on the one hand some kind of cosmetic reforms will be done. The regime will try to consolidate power in Latakia, Western Syria, Homs, Reef Dimashq and Damascus. However, importing foreign fighters through Iran to defend these geographical territories and with more defeats militarily, defections and refusals for military services, moral of the Syrian army will sink to lowest levels . Although a split in the regime is noticeable, most recently with demonstrations by Alawites in Latakia after a fatal argument between Bashar al Assad’s cousin and one other member of the Alawite community, regime collapse is unlikely to come from within quickly. Assad will keep his powerbase, unless rebel fighters will be able to push through to Damascus. There is a power race going on between FSA rebels and IS/Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam. If one of these groups manages to push through Damascus and capture Assad, he will be dragged through the streets of Damascus and publicly executed. What will be the developments after that, depends on which group will be able to capture Assad; if it is FSA rebels under SNC command (the Southern Front), the likelihood of some form of democratic transition is highest, any other faction or fighting group will lead to either anarchy, protraction of the conflict and further oppression of the Syrian population. Indeed Iran and Hizbollah will seek to consolidate their position in Damascus, Kalamoun, western Homs and Tartous. Jordan and Gulf will support opposition FSA groups in Deraa and Qunaitra. The document also mentioned Israel as external support to the FSA but I would protest this, indeed the IDF has been treating wounded FSA and Nusra fighters as well as civilians but Israel is not seeking active support to the FSA, in fact many Israeli Generals have indicated in the Israeli press that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep the Assad regime in its seat. Furthermore Assad apologist and propaganda nun Soeur Agnes (who was unfortunately present at the Saint Andrews conference) had travelled to Israel after the chemical weapons attack where she praised Israel as a light of all nations. There are several other indications that there is secret communication between representatives and influential Assad supporters and Israeli officials, as well as Israeli and AIPAC linkages with some members of the exiled Syrian opposition. In this Israel is playing a rule and divide role rather than anything remotely constructive for Syria. Furthermore Israel will continue to bomb any movement of arms they suspect inside Syria. Turkey and Qatar will support Islamist factions in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo that seek to overrun the regime-controlled part of Aleppo city. The IS will try to preserve its own region in the north and east, battling the FSA, Kurds, Islamist rivals and less likely the regime and Turkey, as they have business ties over oil. Turkey will seek to establish a buffer zone, but mainly to curb any Kurdish nationalism spilling over into Turkey. The Kurdish areas of Afrin and all the way to Hassakah under their own designated name “Rojava” will harden their positions once threatened, recruiting more fighters for the YPG to protect “Rojava’s “ borders. Therefore the country is already split as we speak and the de-facto separation of the country will harden.
The second most likely scenario is anarchy, which will occur if the US-led international bombing campaigns and Assad regime bombing campaigns will continue indefinitely and Iranian and Russian support to the Assad regime will be beefed up, with Iran having more to spend after sanctions will be lifted. The refugee flow and humanitarian disaster will continue to widen, creating further tensions in the region and beyond. This will lead to increasing tensions and the likelihood to generate an even wider conflict beyond Syria’s borders. The international community until today has utterly failed to protect the Syrian civilians. With impunity the Assad regime has been able to continue mass killing Syrian people. The Assad regime has most recently been reported to use napalm and other chemical substances. The US-led bombing campaign has most recently targeted FSA controlled territories with the aim of hitting Jabhat al Nusra and IS in places like Atmeh where there is a large and increasingly more hardened refugee population in the so-called “hard to reach areas”. The international aid is not sufficient and the US-led bombing campaign does not play a constructive role. US foreign policy on Syria has been incompetent to say the least. The latest speech of Obama even included factually wrong information. Of the tens of FSA fighters that were trained by the US, they were instructed not to fight Assad but IS and half of them were kidnapped by Jabhat al Nusra. In other words, the entire undertaking was a joke.
The third most likely scenario is democratic transition. Only in Al Itilaf controlled territory is there a chance of some kind of democratisation and in lesser terms in the Kurdish areas, but which will be dominated by Kurdish ethnocracy.
Syria will not become a caliphate except in the imagination of extremists who will not be able to take the upper hand and sustain power throughout the entirety of Syrian territory. In fact they are not the majority of fighting factions in Syria. Only in the territories controlled by IS but even there it cannot be called a Caliphate in its proper sense. It will not be a longterm phenomenon.
Scenario 1, the Geneva III process, in my view is the least likely scenario. The most recent plan of De Mistura does not find any real echoes on the ground, mainly due to its vagueness and most importantly, the representative’s emphasis of having Iran involved and most likely some role assigned for Assad in transition. Whilst a diplomatic and strategic choice, this suggestion is completely unacceptable for most in the opposition who see Assad and the Iranian government as main culprits of grave warcrimes and violations of the Geneva Convention , let alone how this must feel for the Syrians on the ground who are bearing the grunt of the onslaught with barrelbombs and aerial bombardments. The wounds are simply too deep to overcome to have some meaningful process envisaged in the Geneva III process. Many in the opposition feel they want to have justice before peace.