Out of all the countries in the Middle East, Syria is the most complex and potentially explosive. Many reasons can account for this: external factors, Syria’s attractive strategic location, the structure of Syrian society, the role it currently plays in the region and that which it may play in the future. In fact, Syria's social mosaic has always been one of its assets. Now, however, it finds itself at the core of explosive events, the direct result of a revival of the country’s various identities.
The new life being given to sub-national identities is plaguing the Arab region and the Middle East as a whole, not only Syria. People are emphasizing their religious, sectarian and ethnic affiliations and beliefs at the expense of their national identities. This is the result of a lack of true citizenship, one that goes beyond a mere title or slogan. Citizenship as consensus on a legal, cultural, political and social climate is lacking. The absence of this concept can be observed throughout the Arab world to varying degrees.
The situation in Syria is more peculiar and complex, however, due to the explosive intersection of numerous factors.
The political horizon is vague in Syria and there is no realistic prospect for Syria being rescued from its bloody crisis in the foreseeable future. What’s more, the mission led by UN-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan seems like a mere diplomatic truce, which aimed to exempt the international community from taking any real initiative on the crisis while waiting for a solution to be found. Consequently, foreign countries have hidden behind this mission to improve their hand in dealing with the conflict, and in an attempt to change the attitude of those other international actors who take a different stance. Given this, one of the five following scenarios lies in store for Syria:
- The international community may attempt to simply manage Syria’s decay and disintegration while taking diplomatic actions to contain the fire and keep it from spreading in the region, but without much success — and obviously not extinguishing it and neutralizing its source. As a result, Syria will enter into what is known as an extended social conflict with varying degrees of violence. Many areas, no matter how small, will be outside of the central authorities’ control for indefinite periods of time. The state and its institutions will be eroded. In fact, in this scenario, the state will become weaker than the regime that controls it. Violent armed conflict will plague Syria without any peace on the horizon.
- “Afghanization”, which reminds us of the struggle against the Mohammad Najibullah regime that took place there. To all actors involved, violence appears to be the only means to a solution because of the lack of political options they face. The rhetoric of the revolutionaries will become increasingly radical and their behavior increasingly violent. More specifically, those who believe that a violent armed force is best suited to respond to the regime's violent attitude will see an increase in their power. Given the sectarian tension threatening the region and Syria in particular, Syria will start attracting foreign jihadist fighters at a greater level than has already been observed. Should this scenario take place, an Arab Afghanistan will be established in the heart of the Levant.
- The “Iraqization” of Syria. In other words, the fall and disintegration of the regime over time and the emergence of internal conflicts between sub-national components, even if these groups raise “nationalist” slogans (which in the end only serve to mobilize one specific group, not to build bridges with others). Consequently, these groups will start to grapple with different types of fighting while the state rots and is eroded from the inside. This eventually will lead to the paralysis of the state in its different capacities and roles, thus complicating any chance of finding a political solution based on national legitimacy.
- “Lebanonization”, or, falling into a civil war à la Lebanon. This may end up attracting foreign intervention from near and far and establishing a regime the Lebanese way — that is, a democratic system based on sectarian consensus, fragile and always vulnerable to foreign intervention. We have already observed “Lebanonization” in Iraq, and Syria is currently heading toward “Iraqization.”
- The “Yemenization” of the Syrian arena. Some are still pushing for the adoption of the Yemeni model in Syria, despite the fact that this will be difficult due to the fundamental differences between Syria and Yemen. These differences exist both with regard to the feasibility of an intervention and the regime's grasp on power within the country. This option will be seriously considered once it is clear that it is impossible to bring down the regime and the president. The regime will survive with minor changes that do not affect its essence. However, this scenario is also precarious and has the potential to degenerate into the others outlined above.
The rescue of Syria cannot be achieved by simply raising the bar of political pressure and diplomatic proposals here and there, or by adhering to Cold War logic regarding the parties involved in the crisis. The Syrian crisis requires, first and foremost, some sort of consensus or minimal level of understanding among foreign countries, on the basis of which a road map could be crystallized to guide the process of real and progressive change. This would help manage the process of helping Syria transition from war to peace through national dialogue, which would lead to a specific time table and a clear agenda that binds the foreign countries involved in the crisis to bringing about the desired change in the regime. In the end, this is how the regime can be changed, and how the state can be maintained and kept from falling into a cycle of violence and death. This violence poses a serious risk to all parties involved in the affairs of the Levant, the heart of the Middle East.
This is not a preposterous or impossible solution. While it may entail great difficulties, it is the only way to bring about an end to the Syrian tragedy.