Assessment of future Scenarios for Syria
Regarding the five scenarios, I will give my assessment about which scenario I think is likely to emerge and why, and why other scenarios are less likely. Although I am convinced that none of the five scenarios is exclusive, that a mix of scenarios will likely emerge at different points in time. Elaborating on the reasons why scenarios are more or less lilely, I will give a short ranking.
Protraction of the conflict and geographical division of Syria (scenario 2) is most likely to occur with a deepening division of territory in four main regions and influence spheres;
FSA/Rebel territory controlled through al-itilâf al-watanî as-sûrî with assistance from Turkey and Jordan, these are mainly northwestern areas and the Southern Front whereby institutions will be rebuild, latest development is the re-opening of the University of Aleppo as higher education institute in the liberated areas. Developments such as issuing Syrian passports, birth certificates and establishing a new Syrian National Soccer team, based in Turkey are already on-going and will continue to be implemented by Al Itilaf,of which the President and Ministries are based in Gaziantep, Turkey. Continuous tensions will remain between the secular fighting groups and Islamist factions, with Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam as the major contenders for control of power. However as the Southern Front and the liberated areas in the North West are in the hands of the majority of secular forces, this area is most likely, together with Kurdish areas, to know some form of democratization process. In terms of media and press freedom, the Syrian video activists of my research designate these geographical areas as the most “free” for local journalists. The major security risks are coming from infiltration by IS groups and Islamist extremists such as Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam. The FSA police force is not sufficient to maintain effective control. Furthermore, these areas are mostly affected by the aerial bombardments mainly by the Syrian regime army, barrelbombs and shellings.
Kurdish controlled territories, Afrin towards Hassakah, self-designated as “Rojava” where rapid state building activities have been taking place as well, Kurdish nationalism and cultural expressions have exploded in these areas, all Arabic roadsigns are replaced with Kurdish language signs. These area have had the advantage of not having been targeted by Assad regime aerial bombardments, therefore much less infrastructural destruction have taken place. The Kurds have taken this opportunity to establish their national areas and will not be willing to give up their newly established Kurdish territories. Institutionalisation as begun and in all of the institutions in Rojava there are two co-chair persons, one man and one woman. In every town and village there is a Women’s house providing advise and support. The effective control to the areas was given by the Assad regime in 2012 to the PYD. With an increasingly stronger fighting force in the form of YPG and the YPJs (women units) and strong support of the local Kurdish population, these territories will be difficult to incorporate unless these areas will be included in a federal organization of Syria. Turkey will do great effort to curb Kurdish expansion.
Islamic State controlled territory whereby IS will lose the goodwill of people, have difficulties to sustain for a longterm period and thus will harden the oppression of local people and carry out more brutalities and human rights violations. The Islamic State has been rapidly building and replacing state-like institutions and renaming provinces into emirates and wilayas, however the Islamic State fighters does not have a large support base locally, the local members of the Islamic States have pledged allegiance mainly due to financial reasons, whilst the foreign fighters and Iraqi members have tried to intermarry into Syrian tribes, the brutality of the group has set a lot of very bad resentment. The draconic laws and the disconnect with the local population make the sustainability of the Islamic State questionable, they will only be able to maintain their position by continuing the iron fist and torture of the locals, there is a huge division between representatives of IS and Syrian locals and so if there is any opportunity to bring down IS rule, the local people will support FSA and YPG factions in bringing down IS. What is often not mentioned in analyses of the Islamic State are the swats of Syrian territory where FSA-YPG coalitions like "Burqaan Al Furat" have been able to defend their neighborhoods and defeat both the Syrian Army and Hezbollah militias AND also drive out the Islamic State and where Syrians are continuing against all odds to build institutions to maintain some kind of civil governance structure (long before coalition bombings started on IS strongholds in 2014)
Assad regime controlled territory whereby the oppression of local people is deepened and on the one hand some kind of cosmetic reforms will be done. The regime will try to consolidate power in Latakia, Western Syria, Homs, Reef Dimashq and Damascus. However, importing foreign fighters through Iran to defend these geographical territories and with more defeats militarily, defections and refusals for military services, moral of the Syrian army will sink to lowest levels . Although a split in the regime is noticeable, most recently with demonstrations by Alawites in Latakia after a fatal argument between Bashar al Assad’s cousin and one other member of the Alawite community, regime collapse is unlikely to come from within quickly. Assad will keep his powerbase, unless rebel fighters will be able to push through to Damascus. There is a power race going on between FSA rebels and IS/Jabhat al Nusra and Jaish al Islam. If one of these groups manages to push through Damascus and capture Assad, he will be dragged through the streets of Damascus and publicly executed. What will be the developments after that, depends on which group will be able to capture Assad; if it is FSA rebels under SNC command (the Southern Front), the likelihood of some form of democratic transition is highest, any other faction or fighting group will lead to either anarchy, protraction of the conflict and further oppression of the Syrian population. Indeed Iran and Hizbollah will seek to consolidate their position in Damascus, Kalamoun, western Homs and Tartous. Jordan and Gulf will support opposition FSA groups in Deraa and Qunaitra. The document also mentioned Israel as external support to the FSA but I would protest this, indeed the IDF has been treating wounded FSA and Nusra fighters as well as civilians but Israel is not seeking active support to the FSA, in fact many Israeli Generals have indicated in the Israeli press that it is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep the Assad regime in its seat. Furthermore Assad apologist and propaganda nun Soeur Agnes (who was unfortunately present at the Saint Andrews conference) had travelled to Israel after the chemical weapons attack where she praised Israel as a light of all nations. There are several other indications that there is secret communication between representatives and influential Assad supporters and Israeli officials, as well as Israeli and AIPAC linkages with some members of the exiled Syrian opposition. In this Israel is playing a rule and divide role rather than anything remotely constructive for Syria. Furthermore Israel will continue to bomb any movement of arms they suspect inside Syria. Turkey and Qatar will support Islamist factions in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo that seek to overrun the regime-controlled part of Aleppo city. The IS will try to preserve its own region in the north and east, battling the FSA, Kurds, Islamist rivals and less likely the regime and Turkey, as they have business ties over oil. Turkey will seek to establish a buffer zone, but mainly to curb any Kurdish nationalism spilling over into Turkey. The Kurdish areas of Afrin and all the way to Hassakah under their own designated name “Rojava” will harden their positions once threatened, recruiting more fighters for the YPG to protect “Rojava’s “ borders. Therefore the country is already split as we speak and the de-facto separation of the country will harden.
The second most likely scenario is anarchy, which will occur if the US-led international bombing campaigns and Assad regime bombing campaigns will continue indefinitely and Iranian and Russian support to the Assad regime will be beefed up, with Iran having more to spend after sanctions will be lifted. The refugee flow and humanitarian disaster will continue to widen, creating further tensions in the region and beyond. This will lead to increasing tensions and the likelihood to generate an even wider conflict beyond Syria’s borders. The international community until today has utterly failed to protect the Syrian civilians. With impunity the Assad regime has been able to continue mass killing Syrian people. The Assad regime has most recently been reported to use napalm and other chemical substances. The US-led bombing campaign has most recently targeted FSA controlled territories with the aim of hitting Jabhat al Nusra and IS in places like Atmeh where there is a large and increasingly more hardened refugee population in the so-called “hard to reach areas”. The international aid is not sufficient and the US-led bombing campaign does not play a constructive role. US foreign policy on Syria has been incompetent to say the least. The latest speech of Obama even included factually wrong information. Of the tens of FSA fighters that were trained by the US, they were instructed not to fight Assad but IS and half of them were kidnapped by Jabhat al Nusra. In other words, the entire undertaking was a joke.
The third most likely scenario is democratic transition. Only in Al Itilaf controlled territory is there a chance of some kind of democratisation and in lesser terms in the Kurdish areas, but which will be dominated by Kurdish ethnocracy.
Syria will not become a caliphate except in the imagination of extremists who will not be able to take the upper hand and sustain power throughout the entirety of Syrian territory. In fact they are not the majority of fighting factions in Syria. Only in the territories controlled by IS but even there it cannot be called a Caliphate in its proper sense. It will not be a longterm phenomenon.
Scenario 1, the Geneva III process, in my view is the least likely scenario. The most recent plan of De Mistura does not find any real echoes on the ground, mainly due to its vagueness and most importantly, the representative’s emphasis of having Iran involved and most likely some role assigned for Assad in transition. Whilst a diplomatic and strategic choice, this suggestion is completely unacceptable for most in the opposition who see Assad and the Iranian government as main culprits of grave warcrimes and violations of the Geneva Convention , let alone how this must feel for the Syrians on the ground who are bearing the grunt of the onslaught with barrelbombs and aerial bombardments. The wounds are simply too deep to overcome to have some meaningful process envisaged in the Geneva III process. Many in the opposition feel they want to have justice before peace.