For a year now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has faced massive demonstrations calling for the end of his regime. Although his thugs have killed more than 8,000 of their own people and arrested and tortured far more, Syrians remain undeterred. Every day, they fight back, taking up arms to defend themselves and topple the tyrant. Most of the international community is on their side: Europe joined the United States and much of the Arab world in imposing stiff UN sanctions. Inside and outside the country, calls resound for a military intervention to help the rebels.

The United States must walk a fine line in Syria. On the one hand, should Assad and his regime fall, Washington and its allies would rejoice. Syria is Iran's oldest and closest Arab ally, has long opposed Israel, has backed Palestinian terrorist groups, and, at times, has aided anti-U.S. forces in Iraq. On the other hand, Washington knows that should the entire state collapse, it would usher in a horrific humanitarian crisis, and could bring along with it terrorism and even regional war.

Yet efforts to topple Assad may fracture Syria. Assad, like many a dictator before him, has made the Syrian state and society servants of the regime. The military, the police, the courts, the economy -- everything -- is structured to preserve his cadre's power. It is hard to break Assad's hold without breaking Syria.

The toughest pressure on Syria so far -- sanctions -- reveals the economic fragility of the Syrian state. As intended, the sanctions have devastated the economy and raised pressure on the regime. The currency has collapsed and capital has fled the country. Faisal al-Qudsi, the son of a former Syrian president who is now a businessman in London, claims that the country's GDP has fallen by almost 50 percent due to lost tourism and oil exports. Syria's once considerable foreign exchange reserves are almost empty. The Sunni Arab middle class, which had supported Assad, is now questioning its own allegiance.

Economic pressures may not prove enough to unseat the regime, but they can hollow out the state. Over time, smugglers will make greater use of Syria's long and porous borders with Iraq and Lebanon, creating black markets that will replace legitimate businesses. Meanwhile, the regime will rely on Iran for money to stay afloat. Merchants who have access to the government will profit, while those without such connections will be impoverished. Eventually, a shadow economy dominated by Assad's cronies will be all that is left. Should he fall, so, too, would the entire economic system.
The regime's lack of legitimacy poses further dangers. Although Assad is the heart of the problem, without a clear successor his removal could lead to further fracturing within Syria. If Assad were killed, his relatives and associates, who have strong military and economic roles, would try to replace him. It is not clear, however, who would take his place. His loyalists would compete for influence and control, fighting one another as much as the opposition forces. Further, any successor from his same clique would have no more legitimacy than he did. The new ruler would spend much of his time worrying about rivals and consolidating his power, and the country could rend in two.

That leaves the opposition as the great hope for keeping Syria together, either by taking power when the regime collapses under its own weight or by wresting it directly from Assad. And here the news is dismal. The only thing that has matched the bravery of Syrian opposition is its lack of unity. The anti-Assad forces are divided along ethnic, sectarian, political, and geographic lines. The Syrian National Council, the most recognized opposition group, claims to speak for all Syrians, but there are groups that differ from it on such key issues as national rights for the country's Kurdish minority. Nor does the SNC necessarily speak for the Syrians inside the country doing the dying in their protests against the regime. And although many among the thousands of armed rebels have claimed to belong to a Free Syrian Army, there is no true command-and-control structure, and much of the fighting occurs locally by groups with little or no loyalty to the FSA leadership in exile.

There are reports that local violence is already taking on a sectarian dimension. Assad, like his father, relies heavily on his own Alawi minority community, giving loyalists key positions in the security services and economy. In addition, he has coopted Christians, Druze, and Sunni merchant families, while excluding the Sunni Arab masses. The opposition is responding to this favoritism, singling out and committing violence against the minorities. As the journalist Nir Rosen contends, "The longer the conflict drags on, the more likely it is to devolve into a battle of Sunni militia fighting Alawite militia." In other words, the shooting will not stop just because Assad is gone.
Outside powers are stirring the pot. Turkey officially denies that it is arming the rebels, but it is hosting the FSA. Sources claim that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also helping to arm anti-Assad groups and pressing tribes along Syria's border in Iraq to support them. In the United States, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) even called for the U.S. allies to arm the opposition and said, "People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves." All these powers, however, have slightly different interests in the region and could end up backing different horses once the Assad regime falls. Meanwhile, Iran recently docked warships at the Syrian port of Tartus, which, according to the country's Fars News Agency, is a "serious warning" that intervention in Syria could provoke a region-wide war.

So arming the opposition might boost the chances of the regime falling, but the economic shock and escalating domestic and regional violence that would accompany it also increases the likelihood that Syria will become a failed state. A failed Syria would not be the world's only humanitarian tragedy, but it would be among the world's most dangerous.

Accurate figures are hard to come by (never a good sign), but by some accounts, Syria has already produced at least 200,000 internally displaced persons and refugees. Almost 80,000 have gone to Jordan, at least 10,000 to Turkey, and an estimated 18,000 to Lebanon. All-out collapse could lead to hundreds of thousands more. And beyond the humanitarian concern, refugees are also carriers of conflict. Caught in limbo, their grievances can fester: Refugee camps in Turkey are already serving as bases for the FSA to recruit and organize, and similar camps elsewhere in the region could lead to greater involvement of Syria's neighbors in the conflict. Fleeing war and atrocities, refugees also bring with them tales of persecution and a desire for revenge. In Iraq, this might provoke Sunni rage against the Shias, whom they associate with Iran and with the Alawis. In Lebanon, too, fleeing Sunnis might incite violence against the country's large Shia population, upsetting the uneasy peace Lebanon has enjoyed since its civil war ended in 1991.

Terrorists, too, would try to exploit a failed Syrian state. Ayman al-Zawahiri praised the "Lions of Syria" and called on Muslim fighters to go to Syria to help overthrow the regime. Indeed, Syria has already seen terrorism against regime targets. In February, James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned that "al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," and an Iraqi government official contended that al Qaeda in Iraq has monopolized the flow of arms into Syria, increasing its leverage. As things worsen for anti-regime fighters in Syria, the chance that they would turn to terrorists for help grows.

If Assad is ousted soon, the Syrian state will not fail automatically or overnight, but planning to prevent that from happening or to mitigate the consequences should begin immediately. This planning should go hand in hand with efforts to oust Assad. The survival of the Syrian dictator, who is far weaker than before the rebellion, might hasten the collapse of Syria, and the significant U.S. interests at play make his departure vital.  

The first step would be to create an allied coalition to pressure Iran, Russia, and other friends of Assad. Efforts such as the Friends of Syria -- a broad group of countries opposed to Assad -- is a useful first step. More important, however, is to create a much smaller contact group that would include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and key Western states to ensure that lines of communication among anti-Assad forces are open.

To prevent the opposition from floundering once Assad falls, the allies must work together to build it up. Money and arms should be used as an incentive to push the opposition to unite and work together. They should also be used to strengthen more pro-Western elements of the opposition and get them ready to take power in the postwar state. Indeed, empowering the right leaders today is essential for ensuring that revenge killings are rare in a post-Assad Syria and that a new government follows a moderate foreign policy. To be sure, more weapons will certainly lead to more bloodshed. But for now, the Syrian opposition is arming itself without outside help. Rather than oppose the inevitable, the United States must try to manage the militarization to increase the chances that it will not degenerate into thuggery and radicalization.

Further, the allies should begin immediately to encourage negotiations within opposition ranks to guarantee that Syria has a system of government in place for the transition, as well to preempt one possible source of infighting. Although continued bloodshed makes the announcement of a new Syrian government unrealistic, it would be useful to have a framework for such a government in place so that diplomats can move quickly should an opportunity arise. It would also be helpful to start encouraging the opposition to build a vision of a future Syria that could unify people against the regime and reassure loyalists, particularly Alawis, that they will not be completely excluded from power.
Diplomacy and working with the Syrian opposition are long-term projects. They will not save Syrians in Homs or other beleaguered cities. Nor will they remove Assad from power in the near term. But in many ways, they are more important than the current single-minded focus on Assad's regime. Preventing Syria from failing, even as Assad leaves, is essential for the country's brave citizens and for U.S. interests, and acting now is essential for avoiding the worst later.

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  • DANIEL BYMAN is Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Research Director at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and the author, most recently, of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.
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