The Syrian War’s Three Nightmare Scenarios Becoming Harder to Avoid.
Steven Metz |Friday, Oct. 16, 2015
Whenever it seems that the war in Syria can’t get more tragic and dangerous, it does. That conflict has already created the worst humanitarian disaster of a young century and empowered the barbaric self-declared Islamic State. And it could become worse.
|A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Kobani,|
Today Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the various rebel movements see absolute victory or their own destruction as the only options. A few weeks ago Assad might have begun to believe that military victory was unrealistic. But after Russia’s intervention and increased support from Iran and Hezbollah, he undoubtedly feels that he can defeat the rebels, at least in the parts of Syria where his fellow Alawites live.
Tragically, Syria is moving further away from a negotiated settlement rather than closer. This nullifies current American strategy and should compel U.S. policymakers to coldly re-examine future actions. In doing so, they must understand how the Syrian conflict could produce even greater disasters. Three nightmare scenarios are particularly worrisome. One is that Sunni nations up their involvement to counter increased Russian and Iranian support to Assad, with the war escalating to a region-wide international sectarian war. It is hard to predict how the United States would respond, but this would be one of the most dangerous and troubling choices Washington has faced for many decades.
A second nightmare would be if the Syrian conflict engulfed bordering states. It has already made the long-term survival of a unified Iraq unlikely. Lebanon hangs on to stability by a thread. Jordan is deeply threatened and struggling to deal with a massive influx of Syrian refugees. But the most troubling of all is Turkey. While far above the rest of the region in economic and military capability, Ankara has played a dangerous game, tolerating Assad’s opponents, even decidedly extremist ones. But in the past year, Turkey recognized that it too was threatened by extremists grown strong from the chaos in Syria. Last week’s deadly bomb blast in Ankara, which has been blamed on the Islamic State, shows that Turkey is being dragged deeper into the complex Syrian conflict. The country is, as Steven Cook puts it, “tearing itself apart in a war with itself.” Turkey’s democracy could become one more casualty of the Syrian conflict.
The third nightmare scenario would be an extremist archipelago across the Islamic world, from northern Nigeria to Afghanistan, inspired and fueled by the Islamic State’s ability to control parts of Syria and Iraq. Groups tied to or emulating the Islamic State are already on the rampage in Libya and growing in Yemen and Egypt. The organization has established a foothold in Afghanistan, where in places it appears to be supplanting the Taliban, and has claimed credit for terrorist attacks as far away as Bangladesh. It is not hard to imagine the Islamic State establishing itself in Pakistan, Palestine or some of the other Central Asian nations with repressive governments, sectarian splits or ethnic schisms. A transnational Islamic State archipelago would be nearly impossible to defeat, since even if it were eradicated in its homeland, it could shift resources, leadership and effort elsewhere.
Given all this, a strong case can be made that keeping Syria from getting worse and spiraling into any of these nightmare scenarios should drive American policy. The idea of nudging the combatants toward a negotiated power-sharing arrangement has lost any shred of viability that it might have once had. It is time for a plan B to navigate the quagmire. But knowing that does not automatically indicate the best way forward.
It is clear that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the price paid by the Syrian people and the greater the chances for one of the nightmares to become reality. But outsiders with a vested interest in one side’s victory—like Russia, Iran and the Gulf states—cannot engineer a resolution whether by military force or negotiation. A settlement would require two things. First, all involved in the war, both Syrians and outsiders, must accept that the Syrian nation as it existed before the war is no longer viable. The best that can be hoped for is a separation that keeps open the possibility of future reunification. Clinging to the idea that Syria must remain whole simply prolongs the conflict, the suffering and the chances of the nightmare scenarios coming true.
The second and more important requirement is the deployment of a robust, prolonged peacekeeping or peace-enforcement operation, led by the United Nations with components from nations without a stake in who rules Syria. Whether nations with the capability to provide forces would be willing to do so is another question. Without it the nightmare scenarios will rapidly become more likely, perhaps even probable. The idea of American involvement in such a multinational peacekeeping force under current budgetary pressure is abhorrent. But the alternatives may be even more so.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.