Last Updated: Sat Jan 28, 2012 14:43 pm (KSA) 11:43 am (GMT)

A terrifying menu for Syria’s endgame

Rami G. Khouri

Now that the Arab League has decided to ask the United Nations Security Council to back its plan to resolve the crisis in Syria, the prospects of international involvement in Syria inches forward just a bit more. This adds a new dimension to the already fertile debate on how the mounting violence and expanding political crisis will end.

In the last few months, I have heard dozens of scenarios for how things might play out in Syria. Some are plausible, others are fantastic, but all are suggested seriously by usually knowledgeable observers and analysts. They go something like this.

The most common scenario I hear is that tensions and violence will continue to the point in the coming year where economic collapse causes some influential figures in regime of President Bashar Assad to carry out a coup, after despairing that Assad can find a political solution to the crisis. Such a coup would be led by Alawite and Sunni military officers who would recognize the need to make a deal with the demonstrators and send Syria onto a path of serious political democratization, while sparing Alawites widespread retribution after the fall of the House of Assad. A variation of this sees an inside plot to assassinate the top leaders, and bring an immediate end to the crisis.

Another common scenario is that the Russians will recognize that Assad’s approach is doomed to fail and will shift away from their current course of using a veto to prevent Security Council moves to pressure Damascus. In this script, Russia convinces Assad to step down and leave the country with his extended family and their riches.

A variation on this sees a combination of Alawite leaders, military officers and top businessmen collectively deciding that they are all doomed if the current trends persist, and working together to do one of two things: either to engineer a coup and force Assad’s exit, or to sit him down and make clear that they – his pillars of support – see only doom, so that he must turn over power to a democratic transitional leadership before total collapse ruins the country.

A more dramatic possibility in some people’s view is for regional and global powers to impose no-fly zones and safe havens along Syria’s northern and southern borders. This would speed up the regime’s abandonment by tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, speeding up its collapse from within. This process would be hastened by further economic deterioration impacting on all sectors of society, as tighter international sanctions – including bans on aviation and banking links with Syria – lead to shortages of basic goods and runaway inflation that make it impossible for most Syrians to live a normal life. This would also spark massive anti-regime demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo, the death knell of the Assads.

A more drastic possibility is that the polarization of Syrian society along ethnic lines and full civil war will reach a point where the unified state collapses, and the Alawites retreat into their mountains to form their own state in their northwestern heartland. Some suggest this has been the aim of the crisis all along, with “outsiders” provoking civil strife to the point where Syria breaks up into statelets, including Alawite, Druze, Kurdish and Sunni entities.

This would occur at the same time as Iraq faces similar disintegration as a unified country and leaves behind Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish entities of some sort. Culprits behind this scenario it is said, of course, is Israel and America, whose desire for hegemony over the Middle East would be made much easier by the presence of weaker ethnic statelets rather than larger, stronger Arab states. In such a scenario, Israel would quickly come to the aid of some of these ethnic statelets – as it tried to do with some Lebanese groups in the 1980s – and thus cement both the fragmentation of the Levant and its dominance of it.

The most terrible scenario sees the deterioration in Syria leading the Assad regime to implement the Sampson Option. It would seek to instigate strife and chaos across the region, in order to plunge the Levant into a regional conflagration. This option would be based on the Assads’ assumption that if they cannot rule over a unified Syria, then nobody in the neighborhood should be able to live in peace and security either. Such a scenario would involve attacking or fomenting strife in Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, perhaps resulting in the desperate use of chemical or even nuclear weapons.

These are only the most plausible scenarios that are widely circulated in the region these days. The more outrageous ones we will leave for another day to ponder.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in The Daily Star on Jan. 28, 2012

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