What's next if Assad falls?


Demonstrators hold Syrian opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Qareh, near Damascus, August 3, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Bashar al-Assad appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his regime unleashed. @MRubin1971

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  • The fall of Assad will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in Syria. @MRubin1971

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  • What could come next after Assad’s fall? @MRubin1971 predicts a radical opposition, a chemical weapons conundrum and more.

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Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.

Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.

Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.

What could come next?

Expect a Radical Opposition: Whatever hopes are placed in the White House or the State Department on the Syrian National Council filling the vacuum are likely misplaced. They are an exile organization based in Istanbul and increasingly tainted by Turkish penetration; it seems the Turkish government hasn’t learned the lessons from its attempt to hijack opposition groups ahead of the Iraq war. The real influence on the ground will increasingly be with more radical factions, including al-Qaeda affiliates. The issue is not popularity and broad appeal, but rather the willingness to use unbelievable cruelty to seize power and repress opposition.

The Chemical Weapon Conundrum: The Syrian government now acknowledges what has been, for decades, an open secret: Syria has manufactured and possesses chemical weaponry. If the White House believes they can utilize SEAL Team 6 or other special forces to secure these, they are sorely mistaken. Securing chemical weapons is not just the matter of parachuting in and guarding a door for 24 hours, but can take days if not weeks. Just ask the intelligence teams which rushed to secure Libyan WMD in 2003 before the mercurial Muammar Qaddafi could change his mind. Simply put, the United States will be hard pressed to secure chemical weapons without a lengthy occupation. The United Nations will provide no solace: Just remember all that armament Hezbollah achieved under the UN nose. This raises the possibility that the unconventional munitions could fall quickly into al-Qaeda or Hezbollah hands.

The Flight of the Christians: If you think Iraqi or Egyptian Christians have had it rough in recent years, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Christians are perhaps 10 percent of the country. As a strategy of sectarian survival, they have collectively been as pro-Assad as the Alawi community. And many Sunni Muslims resent them for it. Just as Islamist terrorists targeted churches in Baghdad, expect terrorists to target Christians in Damascus with the goal of pushing them out of Syria. Motivation may not only be religious but also economic. Many Christians have leveraged their political ties into business success, and dispossessed Sunni Muslims will figure that now is the time to redistribute the wealth.

Lebanon: So where will the Christians go? Many will flee into nearby Lebanon where those with greater foresight have already bought apartments and squirreled away money. Lebanon has always been a sectarian tinderbox, though. Whenever demography shifts, the communal relations fray. Renewed fighting is always just around the corner.

Kurdistan Redux: The Turks have long played a double game with Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was for Bashar al-Assad before he was against him. While Erdoğan has darkly warned of international action, he has resisted proposals to create a safe haven in northern Syria for the simple reason that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Turks sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has for almost three decades led a separatist insurgency inside Turkey. Turks fear that any safe haven will bring the region one step closer to a greater Kurdistan, of which what now is southeastern Turkey would form the core. In effect, yesterday Erbil, today Qamishli, and tomorrow Diyarbakir. Of course, the Turks are now between a rock and a hard place because, with Syrian government control evaporating along the frontiers, the PKK and its sympathizers may effectively get the safe haven they crave with or without Turkey.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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