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Research Questions

  1. What circumstances characterize the Syrian conflict?
  2. What implications do these characteristics have for the future of Syria?

Abstract

As the ongoing conflict in Syria enters its third year, persistent uncertainty regarding the circumstances on the ground, potential outcomes, and long-term consequences continues to confound analysis and possible policy responses. This essay explores the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, including the characteristics and interests of the belligerents, the interests of foreign powers involved, and the implications that the present course of events has for the future of Syria and the wider region.

It is concluded that the possibility of reaching a political settlement is becoming increasingly unlikely as the sectarian nature of the conflict intensifies and the unity of the rebel groups remains fractious — no end to the current stalemate is in sight. The conflict has become an existential struggle for all concerned, so not even the fall of Assad will bring an end to the violence. Also, the involvement of Islamic extremist groups and other hardliners poses a future international terrorist threat that could be directed against the West. By the end of 2014, more than half of the Syrian population could be living as refugees, which will exacerbate existing sectarian tensions in neighboring countries — another factor conducive to terrorism. We will be dealing with the effluent of Syria's civil war for decades.

Key Findings

The present status of the belligerents suggests the conflict has reached a stalemate

  • Constrained by concerns about defections, Assad relies on his elite Alawite units, overwhelming firepower, and sectarian loyalists.
  • The rebels cannot be crushed, but they depend on others to bring down Assad.
  • Pro-government militias are likely to play an increasingly dominant role in the conflict.
  • Islamic hardliners will increasingly dominate the rebellion.

The Syrian civil war has implications for actors outside of Syria's borders

  • Assad's foreign supporters, such as Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are in it for themselves.
  • Absent a major provocation, Western military intervention seems unlikely.
  • Syria's civil war could evolve into a wider regional war.

The future of Syria is bleak, and the consequences of its civil war will linger for decades

  • For the foreseeable future, no government will be able to rule all of what was the modern state of Syria.
  • A political settlement is unlikely.
  • Assad's willingness to surrender his chemical weapons will neither end the conflict nor weaken his regime.
  • The sectarian undercurrents that divide the country and the region have become the central pathology of the Syrian conflict — they will impede its resolution.
  • Syria's national institutions are eroding — they are being replaced by local and foreign loyalties.
  • Foreign fighters flocking to Syria pose a future international terrorist threat.

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