Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Bigger, Messier Lebanon

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 9, 2013 --  

The Syrian civil war is going badly for the government. Unfortunately, it is going badly for the people as well.

As Syrian rebels gain ground across the country, one of the best measurements of the health of the Assad regime is reports of fighting in and around the capital. When rebel power reaches a tipping point that causes government forces to collapse, it will likely be in or around Damascus. But when the capital finally falls, be it a few months or even a few years from now, it will hardly be the end of the war. It may not even be the end of the Assad regime.

Like its neighbor Lebanon, which suffered a brutal 15-year civil war until 1990, Syria is fractured along ethnic lines. The Alawite minority that controls the government is concentrated along the Mediterranean coast between Lebanon and Turkey. Before Damascus falls to rebel forces, you can bet that the bulk of the Alawite elite in the capital will flee to this coastal region, perhaps along with President Assad himself. From the safety of their ethnic stronghold, the rump regime can carry on indefinitely. If Assad remains in control of this region, it is possible that he will continue to be recognized as the legitimate government by Russia and other governments, even though he will not control the capital or the vast majority of Syria's population or territory.

The Sunni heartland will remain a battle zone as rebels turn on each other to take control. It is this battle that will probably prove the most important. Will Islamist rebel groups, which have achieved some of the greatest gains, come out on top over more secular rebel forces? This looks likely given current trends. The real question is whether the weaker non-Islamist opposition forces will be able to put up a fight against the Islamists, or whether they will be crushed or forced to submit as a junior partner.

Either way, the future does not look good. Before long, Damascus will be under Islamic law, and rule most of the territory of present-day Syria, except the Alawite coast, the Kurdish northeast, and perhaps a southern pocket controlled by Druze forces, backed to some extent by Israel. If non-Islamist Sunni Arab forces are able to vie for control, additional fronts will be opened around their strongholds.

The Alawites, of course, will do everything they can to instigate the fighting between the Islamists an secularists, perhaps to the extent of aiding the secularists once Damascus falls. That's because the Alawites know that they can maintain and deepen control of their rump territory if the Islamic regime in Damascus has somebody else to fight.

This sounds like a bigger, messier version of Lebanon in 1980. As in Lebanon, it may take an entire generation before people are so exhausted by fighting that they reluctantly put their guns down.

It's too early to cast blame for this coming disaster. The Obama administration, by refusing to aid the rebels, has at least ensured that it will not be blamed for supporting the wrong group. Could the disaster have been averted with earlier and stronger U.S. aid for the opposition? Perhaps not -- Syria is so diverse that it is unrealistic to think that a single unified opposition can be held together. But it is certainly true that the lack of aid to secular rebel forces has allowed Islamist Sunnis to gain more power and become the likely successors to Assad's repression.

Who controls central Damascus during a long civil war may make little difference to the people in what will remain war zones around the country. But for the non-Alawite urban elite, it could be similar to the difference between Kabul under the Taliban and Kabul under Karzai. Given this difference, it is likely that the Syrian refugee crisis will get worse before it gets better.

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