Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow

In his first major speech since June 2012, President Bashar Al Assad struck a defiant tone in an address to party faithful on January 6. Offering no meaningful concessions to internal or external opposition to his regime, Assad labelled his domestic critics as 'puppets and slaves of the West' and declared that he was not someone who 'surrenders his responsibilities'.

In the days before the speech there was speculation that Assad might unveil meaningful measures of reform if only to buy time for his embattled regime. But even vague promises of reform and a new constitution will do nothing to assuage the wave of violence sweeping Syria and which threatens the whole Levant and wider Middle East.

The Syrian conflict has raged for almost two years amid no sign of an early outcome. The ultimate denouement of the Assad regime is almost certain, but without decisive events such as the president’s assassination, a coup d’etat or a weakening in Russian or Chinese positions, the war is all too likely to continue.

Outcomes for Syria, neighbours and the regional balance of power

The longer the violence continues the more likely there will be a less satisfactory outcome. Post-authoritarian states tend to be weaker as demands for representative government become overwhelming. After 45 years of rule by the Assad family, the emergence of a strongman is unlikely to happen. On the contrary, post-Assad we are likely to see a weakened Syrian state, perhaps a hollowed out state, where central authority is likely to be more honoured in the breach.

In this regard one cannot rule out the breakup of Syria. Formally, or more likely informally, Syria may be divided in to a number of de facto statelets. The Balkans conflict of the 1990s triggered long lost identities; Bosnia, last seen in history books in 1914 reappeared in 1992. Syria and Lebanon, under the French mandate, had a separate Alawite state for almost two decades. Just as Lebanon dissolved into sectarian statelets during the civil war of 1975-90 such an outcome cannot be ruled out in Syria.

Without a doubt the country most at risk is Lebanon. So far under the able leadership of Prime Minister Najib Miqati, a Sunni Muslim, the policy of disassociation from the events in Syria has worked – but only up to a point. Lebanon has not escaped damage altogether. The series of clashes in the second city of Tripoli between the small Alawite community and Sunnis have claimed more than 40 lives in the past six months. More recently there has been a dangerous development in Saida with clashes between Hezbollah and Sunni salafists. The longer the Syrian civil war persists the greater the likelihood that Lebanon will be prone to contagion.

Many sects and political groups in Lebanon are beholden to Syria, the most obvious being the small Alawite community in Tripoli and of course Hezbollah, probably the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world. But there are many others such as Palestinian rejectionists like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) General Command whose several armed camps are outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese authorities, as well as large sections of the Christian community epitomized by Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which has the support of approximately 40% of Christians and is allied to Hezbollah. 

For Iran the collapse of Syria would represent the greatest blow to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. The loss would be compounded by putting at risk its crucial military alliance with Hezbollah, making it extremely difficult to resupply its Lebanese ally. It is unlikely to accept an outcome which would leave it dangerously isolated.