WASHINGTON: After a string of incorrect forecasts in 2011 about the imminent fall of President Bashar Assad, U.S. policymakers shy away from publicly predicting how long he will hold on to power in Syria. But experts say he could survive for years, some seeing him still in office in 2018. The Sept. 14 agreement between the United States and Russia on the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal by the middle of next year has done little to raise expectations for a speedy end to the civil war or the rule of Assad, whose brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in 2011 triggered a conflict that is laying waste to Syria, killed more than 100,000 people, and caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in Middle Eastern history.
As diplomacy to work out details of the chemical weapons accord is moving into high gear at the United Nations, the focus is on Syria’s huge arsenal of poison gas rather than on ending a conflict which pits Assad loyalists against a motley group of rebels that include groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
In the short run, the chemical weapons deal secures Assad’s position – he and the military units that control the arsenal are needed to implement the accord. “The agreement in fact legitimizes the Assad regime until mid-2014,” noted Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch scholar on Syria and author of a landmark study of the country’s complex power structures.
Ironically, Assad looks more secure now than he did before the Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed more than 1,000 people in a suburb of Damascus. The “limited airstrikes” U.S. President Barack Obama announced to punish the Syrian government have been put on indefinite hold. The Washington debate over the use of American force in Syria has subsided and the Syrian war is no longer front-page news.
This helps explain how many analysts are now rating Assad’s staying power. At a recent panel discussion arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank, three experts were asked how long they thought Assad would be in office. “I would say there is no end in sight for his reign of power,” said Michael Weiss, a writer on Syria.
Richard Betts, a professor of war and peace studies at Columbia University, and Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, agreed. “He does have hardcore supporters, which we neglected to take into consideration ... in saying it was time for him to step aside,” Murphy said. “Step aside” was a phrase Obama first used in August 2011 and has repeated several times since.
But after Obama’s latest zigzag on Syria, his administration’s priority is to rid Syria of poison gas rather than of Assad. In the space of a few weeks, he was transformed from a murderous thug (in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry) to a partner in chemical weapons disarmament.
Forecasting events in a region as volatile as the Middle East is an exercise with a mixed track record, but experts are often less prone to wishful thinking than politicians. With that in mind, the Center for Global Affairs at New York University last February brought together 11 well-known experts on Syria and asked them to peer into the future, to 2018. The diverse group included Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Joshua Landis, a professor of international affairs who writes a blog on Syria, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
They came up with very bleak scenarios. In two of these, Assad still held office in 2018. In one, he is removed by Russia, which has come to view him as an obstacle to a longer-term territorial arrangement that might bring a measure of stability to Syria while allowing Moscow to retain its presence within the region.
The Center’s forecasting exercise was concluded before Washington and Moscow came to an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, but even if this was implemented without a hitch, it would not substantially change the military balance or the lineup of players vying for influence. In what Heydemann calls “a thought experiment in predictive thinking,” the experts looked into the future on the basis of events unfolding when the workshops were held in February.
In a just-published report entitled Syria: 2018, the bleakest scenario is a regionalized conflict spreading from a steadily worsening sectarian war, with mass atrocities committed by all sides, to Syria’s neighbors. One of the imagined milestones on the road to regional conflict: Rebel forces move into Alawite strongholds in western Syria in 2015, triggering a mass exodus into Lebanon and overturning its already fragile sectarian balance.
The massive influx of Alawite newcomers attracts cross-border fire from pursuing Syrian fighters. Hezbollah steps in to protect them and increases attacks against both Syrian and Lebanese Sunni forces, threatening to reignite the Lebanese civil war.
In the second scenario, the Syrian war stays largely confined within its borders and settles into a multi-sided sectarian conflict with aspects of proxy war among regional rivals (much as it is now). By 2015, the death toll passes 200,000 and keeps climbing as starvation and a lack of clean water contribute to civilian deaths. Despite increasing chaos, Assad hangs on, propped up by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.
The group’s third scenario foresees a partition of Syria after Assad is eliminated (the report does not spell out how). Movement toward dividing the country gathers momentum after fierce fighting throughout 2014 for the city of Homs, which becomes the epicenter of the Syrian stalemate both in geographic and symbolic terms.
The fighting exhausts both sides. A demarcation line through Homs offers the potential for a formalized petition between a debilitated post-Assad Baathist government in the south and west and a still-fragmented opposition in the northeast.
In 2015, the United Nations Security Council deploys peacekeeping troops to enforce a cease-fire. Growing international consensus on the benefits of partition drives leaders of the post-Assad regime and opposition figures to the negotiating table.
By 2018, Syria is no longer unified.