Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
It’s hard to gauge just how strong the Free Syrian Army really is. It’s clearly growing in size and in its ability to control ever-widening swaths of territory. But at the same time, Russian and Iranian guns pour into Bashar al-Assad’s government. And Bashar al-Assad has a steely will to power.
Given the mounting tension, it’s worth thinking through exactly how regime change may unfold and what it’s consequences would mean for the region.
Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy ran an online simulation on what could go down in Syria. Here are the results:
1) A military coup ousts al-Assad but retains control
The military regime could hold on to power while dumping al-Assad. Iran would like this scenario. A militarized dictatorship in Syria would keep its supply lines open to Hezbollah and Hamas.
The renewed regime would have to enter into some pro forma negotiations with the Free Syrian Army and two competing opposition groups (the Syrian National Council and National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change).
The West would hope for a not-too-bloody handover to civilian rule, mimicking Egypt post-Mubarak. As for al-Assad, he’d probably take a bullet to the brain on this one.
2) Al-Assad holds on as figurehead while a transitional government is negotiated
This would be more to Moscow’s liking. Vladimir Putin has drawn his “redline” on swift regime change but probably could stand some drawn-out version, so long as his fellow dictator wasn’t given the bum’s rush . . . to the International Criminal Court.
Putin is feeling pretty touchy right now about how far north the whole “spring” dynamic might extend, plus he desperately wants to hold onto Russia’s naval basing rights in Syria - as decrepit as those port facilities are.
But since these are mostly “nice to have” outcomes that speak to global perceptions of Russia’s superpower decline, it’s hard to imagine Putin going to the mat on this one, meaning al-Assad should keep his bags packed.
3) Al-Assad’s regime yields to a transitional coalitional government
This is basically the Arab League’s plan, and - by extension - what the United Nations would prefer. Ideally, this is accomplished without any dragged-out civil war that might tempt outside powers to intervene militarily. Consider it a Libya-lite.
Because of the International Criminal Court’s reach, al-Assad would probably end up in some gorgeous “dacha” outside Moscow. The distracted West would love this outcome, as would any rival of Iran (the Turks and Saudis), but given Syria’s religious divisions, this would likely end up being a fairly unstable waypoint to something worse. Right now, al-Assad shows no signs of submitting, so the longer the current fighting goes on, the more likely we’re looking at some serious - and permanent - dissolution of Syria as a unitary state.
4) Syria descends into civil war
Besides al Qaeda, nobody really wants this. However, paradoxically, both Israel and Iran might find it a tolerable interlude before even worse outcomes. If Syria descends into civil war, it would immediately pull Hezbollah’s attention northward. From the Persians’ perspective, civil war would keep Tehran in the game and divert the bulk of global attention away from Iran’s continued push for nuclear weapons. One apple-cart unsettling possibility: Hezbollah might decide it must preemptively take over Lebanon in whole. That roll of the dice would likely distress Israel and delight Iran, because Hezbollah can pull it off.
5) Syria fractures internally but holds together as a fragile state
Call this the Iraq-2 scenario, which in general would favor Iran’s rivals, because the biggest “tribe” left standing would be the overwhelmingly majority Sunni, with the now-ruling-but-minority Alawis retreating to the mountains along Syria’s Mediterranean coast and the similarly small Kurdish population staking their own claim in the northwest.
The logical losers would be the suddenly orphaned Christian minority. Turkey naturally prefers to avoid yet another Kurdish state-within-a-state, but would probably swallow that in return for mentoring the newly dominant Sunni version. The Shia-dominated Baghdad government, and - by extension - Tehran, would be made nervous by Iraq’s restive Sunni minority suddenly having a new ally to the immediate west.
6) Syria effectively disappears and a new Sunni state arises to threaten Iraq’s territorial integrity
This low-probability path gets tricky, because it involves both Turkey and Saudi Arabia betting that they might be able to simultaneously dismember the Baghdad regime in a bid to create a Sunni buffer state that links up those populations currently “out of power” in both Syria and Iraq.
This would be akin to a Pashtunistan arising across the patently fake border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkey is less incentivized to play this risky game, because a truly free Kurdistan might escape Baghdad’s grip in the process, inflaming Ankara’s long-standing Kurdish issue back home. So the driver here would have to be a Saudi kingdom so unnerved by Tehran’s long-term threat as to preemptively avail itself of this danger-filled opportunity.
7) Civil war is mercifully short, perhaps accelerated by a limited “Western” military intervention
This truly would be the Libya-2 scenario, with NATO getting virtually pulled in by Turkey’s decision to expand its current sanctuary zones for refugees and opposition fighters into Syria proper. This creeping “no-something-zone” logically segues into Ankara openly supporting the Free Syrian Army in a game-changing bid to end the conflict on decisively Turkish terms. And you know what? Turkey’s NATO partners, being otherwise occupied with their own internal fiscal crises, might just silently go along with that.
8) The second coming of the United Arab Republic!
Since we’ve spun up scenarios that represent best-possible wins for regional rivals Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, it only seems fair to broach one for a resurgent Egypt post-Mubarak. While members of Syria’s exiled chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood suffered mightily under the father-and-son al-Assad regimes, a network of uncertain strength still exists inside the country. Fast-forward to a post-al-Assad resurgence of its fortunes, and we could possibly be looking at Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islamic republics in both Syria and Egypt, recalling the temporary union between the two states in the late 1950s under pan-Arabist leader Gamal Nasser.
9) Syria surprises everybody and ends up being the most democratic post-Spring Arab regime
This seems the least likely, but it’s not fantastically unlikely. After all, neighboring Lebanon pulled off a similar feat prior its mid-70s descent into madness, and Syria’s religious complexity is really no worse. But we feel like we’re running on fumes here, so let’s wrap it up on that hopeful note.
That’s our “wisdom from the crowd” for this week.
Now give us your preferred scenario in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.