Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
Rebel forces and government troops clashed in Damascus yesterday, in what opposition sources described as the heaviest round of fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising. The authoritarian regime established in 1970 by Hafez al-Assad and inherited by his son Bashar in 2000 is highly likely to end in its current form, but not imminently: It could last well into 2013.
The regime seems likely to collapse following a prolonged conflict that exacerbates sectarian divisions. This could lead to a period of instability much worse than in Libya as groups of Sunni Arab rebels vie for power with each other and with militias dominated by the al-Assad family's Alawi sect, and possibly other minorities. Eventually, a weak government is likely to emerge, which is guided by a secular constitutional framework, but deeply divided internally along communal lines.
Post-al-Assad Syria is likely to see a constitution that balances democracy with the rights of the major communities. These consist of Arab Sunni Muslims (51-53%); Kurds (14-16%); Alawis (11-13%); Christians (8-10%); the Druze (3%); and Ismaili Shia (3%). The Sunni Arabs will seek a dominant share of representation in the new system because of their numbers and leading role in the uprising.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long been the main source of opposition to the regime, but it lacks the grassroots organization that benefited mainstream Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia. Its leadership understands the need to build an inclusive system and will come under strong external pressure to act cooperatively.
A substantial part of the opposition wants a continuation of the secular regimes that have ruled Syria since independence. However, the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon have demonstrated a preference for systems based on ethnic and religious affiliations, particularly at times of political upheaval. Such a system can paralyse decision-making, impede reform and entrench communal divisions.
The Alawis are too large a minority to be excluded from the system and are likely to remain a key element in the armed forces. The Alawi-dominated Praetorian Guards and the numerous security and intelligence services will be disbanded. However, the government will need to retain some Alawi officers in other parts of the armed forces to ensure Syria can continue to defend itself.
The ruling Ba'ath Party will follow other state parties into oblivion. It will take time for new ones to form, organize and win support. The Sunni political and business elite has some experience in government, albeit in the al-Assad system where ministers had little authority.
There is as yet no viable alternative government on the model of Libya's Transitional National Council. The external opposition, including the Syrian National Council, is divided and lacks credibility. The internal opposition is composed mostly of local groups and lacks a coherent national structure.
The increasing involvement of the international community should see efforts to help the opposition organize more effectively and plan strategies for a new Syria.
Any successor government will inherit an economy weakened by sanctions and conflict, and by the al-Assads' failure to modernize it effectively. Drought, declining oil output and a still poorly developed tourism sector will limit the capital available to invest in job creation and tackling poverty. The change will generate great expectations that could overwhelm a fragile new administration run by inexperienced leaders.
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