February 12th, 2012
10:28 PM ET

Zakaria: What's next for Syria?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

We need to ask ourselves three interrelated questions about Syria. First, what is likely to happen there? Second, what should the United States do about it? And third, what is the broader impact of instability in Syria? I’ll tackle each question in turn.

What is likely to happen?

Bashar al-Assad drew an unfortunate lesson from the Arab Spring: Don’t waiver; don’t make concessions; don’t show weakness. In al-Assad’s eyes, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak vacillated in his response to protests and ended up in prison. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi wasn’t ruthless enough and ended up dead. Al-Assad has chosen to be brutal.

If you look throughout history, you’ll find that such brutality often works. The killings in Tiananmen Square did disperse the pro-democracy movement in China. For more examples, look at Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Read: Arming the Syrian opposition is risky.

History suggests that al-Assad might be successful, except for one fact: The Syrian regime is truly isolated and weak. It doesn’t have a lot of money and it doesn’t have a superpower sponsor like Hungary and Czechoslovakia did.

Syria’s main patron is Iran. But there must be limits to Iran’s economic support. Iran is facing serious financial pressures of its own. I don’t doubt Syria’s intention to crack down, but I do question its capacity to fund its crackdown indefinitely.

For these reasons, I think we’re going to see a low-grade civil war in Syria for the foreseeable future. The government will not be able to fully suppress this revolt. The opposition will prove unable to completely overturn the government. The stalemate could go on for a long, long time. For examples of this, look at Yemen in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, or Somalia in the 1990s.

What should the United States do?

The United States should try to help the forces of democracy and freedom in Syria. But we don’t know who the opposition is, exactly. Does it favor democracy? We only know that it is opposed to a brutal dictatorship. That entitles it to some support from us, but we need to learn more.

For now, I think we should continue isolating the Syrian regime. We should help Syria’s opposition politically and perhaps economically. I would not, however, advocate arming the rebels or embracing any other kind of military role for the United States. That is a big leap and it is not clear that military intervention will succeed.

Read: Should the West intervene in Syria?

First of all, such intervention would be viewed as unilateral. It would be very different from the situation leading up to the Libyan intervention, which came after the Transitional National Council in Libya, the Arab League, and the United Nations endorsed it and after the Europeans agreed to do the heavy lifting.

We have to think carefully about when and where the U.S. uses its military power. It should be in places where we feel the costs are not high, the dangers are not huge, and the likelihood of success is reasonable. There is no point in getting involved in a military intervention that is going to be a fiasco, ultimately won’t work, or will backfire.

What is the broader impact of instability in Syria?

The regional or global consequences of low-grade civil war in Syria are limited. Syria is not an oil-producing country. It is not right next door to the Strait of Hormuz. It is not a vital supply route. Syria has been an isolated country for a while.

In today’s world of trade, globalization and interdependence, political instability in one country tends to get cordoned off. I was stunned during the Iraq War at how complete chaos in Iraq had no discernable effect on the economies of nearby Jordan, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. All of these places are a 45-minute flight from Iraq. But while Iraq was in a complete meltdown, these neighbors were booming. As far as I could tell, the only effect of the Iraq War on their economies was that it boosted real estate prices in Amman, Dubai, and Istanbul because a flood of Iraqis were buying up real estate.

Read: Three military options for Syria.

In a similar way, we aren’t seeing major regional or global repercussions of the violence in Syria.

The only country that is really affected by instability in Syria is Iran. Iran has gone all-in backing al-Assad’s regime. So to the extent that we’re seeing a slow motion collapse of that regime, the situation becomes increasingly expensive for Iran and associates Iran with repression, brutality, and failure.

What to watch

Repressive regimes usually start their downward spiral when internal divisions open up. So far, you haven’t seen that in Syria. The regime’s base has stayed intact. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and international relations theorist Thomas Schelling writes about a “focal point” - the one thing that everyone can agree on in a regime. The Syrian regime endures because it has Bashar al-Assad as its agreed-upon head. He serves as a “focal point” just as the young Kim Jong-un does in North Korea. Neither has all of the power, but they are the common denominator that all powerful factions in the country can agree on.

Read: How Syria differs from Libya.

Once you see army defections, cracks within the intelligence apparatus, and the fracturing of the business elites, then you’ll know that the end is near. At that point, the United States might want to reevaluate its options.

However, we should also keep in mind that while al-Assad is brutal and Syria is a mess, Syria after al-Assad may be even worse. Syria could end up being Libya on steroids.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day.

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Topics: From Fareed • Syria

soundoff (173 Responses)
  1. Rend O. Ayar

    Dear mr. Zakaria,
    I enjoyed your thoughful analysis of the Syrian crisis. In foreseeing of political development, nobody has the crystal ball but passed events can shed some light as to probable outcomes, although invariably we get suprised by unpredicted endings or under-rated options. As I see it, there are several scenarios which may help one or more parties of interest in this conflict. First, who are these interested parties: Turkey, Iran, Israel, Lebonan,Jordan and to some lesser degree Persian Gulf Arab states, Russia, China, USA, and France and to a lesser degree other Europeans states. Current Syrian regime is acceptable alternative to unknown of rebels for Israel, russia, and Iran. China, is after expanding its grwoing global influence, so by siding with Syrian regime, they want to go against the dominant Western opinion. It does not matter to the what the nature of the conflict is. Overall Syria is not a major source of economic or ideological importance to them. Russia is in similar position with the difference that it is losing footing in the region with no porspect of cultural connection or major economical tie but they were an alternative of military suppler for Syria for 30 years and final point backdoor presence in the Middle East. Israel loves to have a benign enemy on their borders that can be used to its own internal political benefits. Lenbonan is too culturally fragmented to have a long term solid position vis a vis Syria. However, some like Hezbollah needs it as the transit source of arms and political support, others hate it as the bigger brother.So, a change it the Syrian regime structure, creats uncertainly for all of these lebanese groups for a foreseeable future. Finally, for Syrian merchants and wealthy elite, Lenonan is not a safe place to stash away their money. That brings me to the Persian Golf states who benfit from a prolonged Syrian conflict as the safe harbor of Syrians to invest away from Syria.So is Jordan, who has enjoyed economic boom as the result of regime change in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Tunesia. Saudi Arabia's take in this mess is to challenge Iran because they are to curtail Shia Iran influence in anywhere they can (examples are ample from investment in religious schools in Pakistan, to the support of Bahrain royal family and not mention their own shia eastern provinces). Iran on the other hand is set to be the main loser if Syria does not put an end to the uprising quickly. A prolonged civil war, will drain Iranian resources in support of the regime the is run by Alavite minority, is a safe point of Iranian and Iranian supported groups such Hezbollah and Hamas and a thorn to the immediate Syria's neighbor, i.e. Israel. Any change in the Syria's regime (unlike Iraq that worked to Iran's advantage) is a devastating blow to Iran's influence in the Middle Easte. So, what's in it for the West? A change of regime in Syria is in my opinion the major factor to exhust Iran. As a quick crash of opposition in Syria is what Iran is betting on, the prolonged low intensity war is their worst nightmare. For the West though, the only minor headache is what to do with an unknown future government in Syria.

    February 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA


      Your analysis is pretty thoughtful, lots & lots of stuff for Mr.Zakaria to fine tune and spread it out as another half a dozen "MY TAKES"!

      ......That's what he excels in!!!

      Having said that: I am amazed you call Mr. Zakaria's essay a thoughtful analysis!

      This one sentence itself shows the UTTER LACK OF KNOWLEDGE on Mr.Zakaria's part.

      “In today’s world of trade, globalization and interdependence, political instability in one country tends to get CORDONED OFF!!!!!!”

      Honestly one of the stupidest statments I have seen from Mr. Zakaria........many of which strangely goes under the raddar with many people who skim through his so-called analysis.

      Plz. check my response above.

      February 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      Rend and Amit, the two of you are as "full of yourselves" as Zakaria is.

      February 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  2. Russ

    No one likes what is going on in Syria. Mr. Zakaria has taken a lot of uneccessary verbal abuse from people who don't know what would happen if the US would intervene military. First you have Iraqi Al Queda fighters entering Syria joining the Free Syrian Army. Would you want US special ops folks running into them accidentally? What about Hezbollah? Surely they will rally behind Assad and make sure he doesn't fall. If the US acts; will Hezbollah target US interests around the world and at home in response?You can arm the resistance; but the US doesn't have to do it. It's not as a simple as everyone is making it out be.

    February 14, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  3. Ken Margo

    I have one Question. Where's Allah? Arab people have no problem raising hell quoting Allah when they feel wronged by others. It's amazing now that Arabs are killing Arabs you do not hear a peep or see a march from Muslims and Arabs. If Allah is as powerful as Muslims and Arabs make him out to be, I can't think of a better time for him to show up and put an end to this.

    February 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      Allah is giving a tough time to Muslims for their bad habits as Allah did to Jews when they refused Jesus. Muslims are not obeying Allah but the west so Allah can't help them only the west can help them and they are looking towards west for help not Allah.

      February 15, 2012 at 3:28 am | Reply
      • Mike Houston

        What??? If you're representative of Mideastern or Arabic "thought" it is no wonder
        that the Mideast is such a mess..

        February 15, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  4. pablo

    WHo is Zakaria and why does his opinion matter?

    February 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      Opinion of such people matters. A lot of people including the president will read and can get impressed. Have you forgotten the IRAQ case of weapons of mass destruction. It were these media people who triggered this war despite there was nothing in Iraq and all American believed that Iraq has weapons.Who made people to believe about Iraqi weapons.The same thing these journalists are doing with Iran. Even if Iran stops its nuclear program and submit its will to USA and Israel it will be destroyed like Qaddafi.

      February 15, 2012 at 4:48 am | Reply
  5. yosef

    Unfortunately Zakaria proved to me that he does not know what he is talking about. He never lived there and he has no depth of knowledge about Syria. His analyses are very wrong. He does'n know the syrian people and does not understand the structure of the Syrian Regime. 3 missals to the Syrian Palace will bring the government down. The repressed Syrian people will bring the government down and will not take more than 2 months. There is no way back. The Syrians people only need medical and protection of the vivilians

    February 14, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
    • Aaron Goldfarb

      Al Qaeda is led in USA by the Jew Adam Pearlman.


      The only person wanted by the FBI for treason in over 50 years, is the Jew
      behind the US branch of Al Qaeda - Adam Pearlman.

      So why would Al Qaeda, filled with Jews, hate Assad and kill Syrian civilians? Answer: To build Greater Israel. Everybody knows this.

      February 15, 2012 at 3:58 am | Reply
  6. jomo

    How interesting, first two bomb plots in two countries that are friends and business partners with Iran by methods used only by Israel before. and the next day some supposed Persian guy explodes himself. Please Israel it's too obvious, lets face it you guys are smart but Mullahs are a step ahead

    of you when it comes to be underhanded.

    February 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  7. Aaron Goldfarb

    Do we see Syria arming the Occupy Wall Street protestors with anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles and AK-47's?

    – Aaron Godfarb

    February 15, 2012 at 1:13 am | Reply
    • Tahir

      You cannot arm people against US Government it is a terrorist activity.You can arm people against any other Government if you like, this is allowed.The only rule that rules the world is Might is Right, so follow this rule you will have never trouble.

      February 15, 2012 at 4:38 am | Reply
      • Aaron Goldfarb

        Might would like to rule the world, but Justice always wins out. Note the failure of the Roman Empire, the failure of the USSR empire. Notice how nuclear China now supports the Arabs, who have the oil, over the Jews who want to make a Greater Israel. China and Russia are blocking the Jewish UN resolutions, much as the USA has blocked UN resolutions against Israel.

        Might is usually never Right. China knows this, this is why China hasn't used nuclear weapons on civilians. Using Might without justice and morals means that Might has no might, no lasting power.

        February 15, 2012 at 5:27 am |
  8. NAKH

    Zakarea, you really should read more about strategies and look to the map of the world to understand that no one can attack Syria. Syria is able to turn the middle east into hell.
    one more thing, all reports here on CNN said that All syrians are against Assad, while the truth is that Assad has the support of the majority people.

    February 15, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      NAKH, how do You know what the "truth" is? If Assad had majority support he wouldn't need tanks and artillery to
      put down (what began as) civil disobedience. Assad and his military turned it into armed conflict. Assad has revealed
      himself to be no better than Saddam Hussein-a dictator who cares nothing for the well being of his people. He needs
      to be removed (not by the U.S. but by the Russians)...unfortunately for everyone there is Putin in the way...
      Syria's is about to go off the map as badly as has Somalia...

      February 15, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  9. Seldon plan

    I don't think you have considered the relationship between Syria and Iran. A civil war in Syria isolates and weakens Iran. The US sees Iran as the biggest treat in the middle east. An unstable Syria means that the US does not have to look over its shoulder at Syria while it deals with Iran. Hence no US advantage to intervene. In addition, If the US does intervene can it handle military action in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran at the same time. This may seem cold analysis, but its the way i see it.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  10. bam bam bam lets bam iran

    we must attack iran now before it is too late when we do iran, the other thugs in syria , bashar al kalb and hizboalla the evil parties and terrorists will fall.....

    February 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
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