There are three plausible outcomes for Syria. But there may well be years of war before the outcome is determined. And, as Morechai Kedar has noted, this would be a period in which Syria would be dominated by diverse militias and have no effective government.
1. Perhaps the most likely outcome is a Sunni dictatorship that is controlled initially or fairly shortly thereafter by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
2. Perhaps almost as likely is an Alawite victory — with or without Assad. This is possible because Iran may give unlimited help to the Syrian government’s struggle to suppress the revolt. And the minorities and business community in Syria may be so afraid of the Sunnis, led by the MB and/or Salafis, that they deprive the Sunnis of the support they need to defeat the government.
3. Least likely is a de facto or formal division of the country — presumably among Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Druse, and possibly Christian areas. While such a division may seem like a reasonable way to resolve the deadly antagonisms between the groups — especially the Sunni inclination to oppress and kill minorities — it may be impractical because the populations are too much intermixed geographically. Also, whichever side wins the main clash between Sunni forces and government forces seems likely to be too strong to be willing to allow minorities to control parts of the country. Whichever side wins is likely to want to establish its government’s control over the whole country and to be too strong for the minorities to resist.
There are at least two reasons why it is hard to see how the war could end without a victory by one side or the other. One is the limited cultural support in Syria for resolving differences by compromise. The other is that there is no power that could enforce the terms of a compromise. It is not like the Iran-Iraq war, where each side could go back to its own country. The Alawites believe, with reason, that if power goes to the Sunnis they and their families and society will be killed or virtually enslaved. Who could they trust to enforce an agreement to protect them if they lost the power to protect themselves? And if the rebels agree to cease fighting who could they trust to prevent the government from killing them?
Perhaps there was a chance, about a year ago, for the US and others to help Syrians replace Alawite rule with a regime which would not be dominated by the MB and other radical Islamists. That is, a regime that would try to enable the various Syrian groups to live together. Cynics would say that this was never possible, and that certainly the US was not capable of finding the delicate balance that would have been required if success was possible at all. But during the last year the conflict has become increasingly murderous, and, with US and Turkish support, the MB has gained increasing dominance of the opposition. So now the choice is probably between the MB and the Alawites (sustained by Iranian help).
And the US certainly will not do what would be needed now to make a serious try to prevent the MB and other Islamists from gaining control of the opposition movement – if that is at all possible. No effort to help the non-MB groups in the opposition could begin until after President Obama leaves office.
In my next post I will discuss the implications for Israeli and other policy of these possibilities – and the question of the Syrian chemical weapons.