Likely end-game scenarios for Syria’s three-year-long civil war are coming into view, even if the actual end of the conflict appears as hopelessly far-off as ever.
There are four likely scenarios in which the conflict can end, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation. Aside from a single longshot scenario, each of the possible outcomes bodes poorly for the region, the international community, and the Syrians themselves.
In December 2013, RAND assembled a workshop that included US intelligence and policy experts, think tank scholars, and RAND researchers. The workshop was instructed to come up with four possible endings to the war in Syria, each of which had to be plausible and could occur in the near term — between 2014 and 2015.
In an October paper, RAND readdressed the workshop and tweaked its findings to fit the new realities of the ground.
Here are its four scenarios.
Prolonged Conflict Between Surviving Statelets
In this outcome, the current battle lines in Syria harden and a number of semi-functioning mini-states sprout up throughout the country. These possible units could include a rump Alawite state run by the Assad regime that stretches from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast in the west, a Kurdish state in the far northeast, a moderate Islamist state that controls the area between the outskirts of Damascus and the Israeli border, and an ISIS emirate the spans from Aleppo to the Iraqi border.
In this situation, Iran and Russia would likely continue to fund Assad, while Tehran would also build patronage ties to the Kurds and non-jihadist Sunni rebels. Hezbollah would likely continue to fight in Syria, leading to a ever heightening levels of sectarianism.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be the big winners from this scenario, as they would have free reign to continue their operations and plan out terrorist attacks. Sectarian fighting would likely also further spread into Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
An Assad ‘Victory’
This scenario wouldn’t be a regime “victory” in the purest sense.
Instead, Assad and his regime forces would slowly grind down the rebel factions by brute force and by playing off of their internal divisions. Even then, rebel groups would likely continue to operate along the Turkish border, the Golan Heights, in the eastern Syrian wilderness, and in pockets of resistance in Aleppo and Damascus.
This partial win would likely further embolden Assad to take a more aggressive stance towards the Gulf States that assisted anti-regime militants or whose governments have a particularly Sunni sectarian flavour to them, like Bahrain and Kuwait. However, in the long run, Syria would prove a major financial drain on Iran and the US could potentially woo Assad away with economic aid.
At the same time, ISIS would continue to function in Iraq and Hezbollah would lose any support in the Arab world as it would be seen merely as a tool of the Iranians. The Gulf States would then likely turn on the US and blame it for the Assad victory, citing Obama’s years of policy indecision.
The collapse of Assad would be a drawn-out affair involving the slow loss of a substantial number of regime soldiers over a period of months. This outcome would only come about through the rebels acquiring more advanced weaponry like portable anti-aircraft missiles.
The fall of the regime would lead to the emergence of a multitude of competing fiefdoms in the country, ranging from secular nationalist to ISIS enclaves. This would lead to a constant level of violence between the various rebel factions, with ISIS emerging as the strongest force in the region.
This is the worst possible outcome for Iran and Hezbollah.
Iranian influence in the region would decline with the loss of a trusted proxy, and a weakened Hezbollah would likely come under attack from a number of factions in Lebanon. At the same time, ISIS would plan terror plots from its safe haven while possibly carrying out ethnic cleansing against Syria’s Alawite minority.
A Negotiated Settlement
A negotiated settlement is the least likely to occur of these scenarios. This outcome would rely upon the resumption of now-suspended peace talks and the creation of an inclusive, non-sectarian government in Syria consisting members of the Assad regime and members of the various rebel factions.
In all likelihood, the settlement would provide for safe passage out of Syria for Assad and his family — which means it would require a host nation to offer him asylum. It would mean creating an entirely new national government with an inclusive military that involved Sunnis at the highest levels. This military would then have to turn against ISIS and the Nusra Front to secure Syria’s territorial integrity.
Both the US and Iran would likely have to work in conjunction to deploy military trainers to create the new national army. The Gulf States would likely support this outcome but may have trouble cracking down on donors to violent jihadist groups operating in the country.
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