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What is the worst-case scenario outcome in Syria, and how will it affect the rest of the Middle East?

Question submitted by David Karapetyan, June 7, 2013

Answered by: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies

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Syria has been mired in deadly strife since March 2011 and the outlook for resolving what is now a full blown civil war looks increasingly dire. The worst case outcome for Syria is one whereby the country fragments and becomes a failed state in which the Damascus government no longer controls its own territory. Under such a scenario, the glue holding the country together comes unstuck. The Syrian military fractures, with Syria's considerable conventional and non-conventional weapons no longer under a unified chain of command. Meanwhile, a mťlange of armed opposition groups exert control of territory along ethnic or tribal lines. In such a case, rampant sectarian violence and retribution for past grievances would be widespread. Such a scenario would create a vacuum allowing armed jihadists from abroad to find sanctuary in Syria.

Such chaos would not be bound by Syria's existing borders. Violence, unrest, and retaliatory violence would easily spread to Lebanon, particularly given Hezbollah's own involvement in Syria's civil war. Violence could also easily spread to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq where well over a million Syrians now live as refugees. Israel could also be pulled into the fray as Syria's weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems become available to terrorist groups. In such an environment, regional powers may feel compelled to secure or advance their interests. Hence, Turkey could potentially set up a buffer zone within Syria while Iran seeks to exploit the chaos to assert its own regional ambitions. Such a worst-case scenario looks increasingly likely with prospects for a political settlement short of all out victory for one side highly improbable. Instead, either Assad and his allies from Hezbollah and Iran will prevail and defeat the rebels or else he will be deposed. Under either scenario, continued civil strife and sectarian violence should be expected.