With Syria’s Bashir al-Assad poised for defeat, what will replace his regime? It would be a mistake to blindly back anti-Assad forces with little legitimacy on the ground.
In an uninspired but necessary act of “me too-ism”, Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s announcement that Australia now formally recognises the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian state follows the US and around 100 other countries which understand that the Assad regime’s days are numbered. The question now is not if, but when and how.
That, and whether Bashir al-Assad’s senior team will be granted asylum.
A regime bombing its own people, in Assad’s case with Scud missiles and phosphorous bombs, is a clear sign that it is on the edge of collapse. Anti-Assad forces control or hold significant sway over the north and west of the country, increasingly isolating Assad’s Alawite support base on the Mediterranean coast.
In large part due to Syria’s fragmented ethnic make-up, without a peace deal in which Assad leaves voluntarily, his Alawite supporters, many Christians and some others may fight to the last. The Alawites and others have the not unreasonable fear of a tribal blood bath.
For Carr, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other foreign dignitaries contemplating an increasingly probable post-Assad Syria, the issue is who will hold power and in what circumstances. The “who” will be a tattered anti-Assad coalition; the circumstances will probably be who best survives not just the anti-Assad war but, now more importantly, a possible civil war between victorious anti-Assad factions.
The US has chosen not to have a dog in this particular fight. While this is a wise enough move given its failed experiences elsewhere, it will limit the US’ capacity to influence a post-Assad environment.
Russia’s Assad will be a dead dog soon enough. One thing uniting the post-Assad forces will be their antipathy towards Russia. Russia will no doubt be keenly considering the loss of its Mediterranean Sea access via the Syrian port of Tartus.
Iran’s interest in influencing a post-Assad Syria is complicated by the Alawites being the Shia’s biggest Syrian branch. Saudi Arabia’s interests are linked to the growth and military successes of radical Sunni combatants, who are likely to play a significant post-Assad role.
The US declaring the anti-Assad Nusra Front (linked to al-Qaeda) as a terrorist organisation has angered many in the anti-Assad camp and driven further away one combatant group that is likely to be a key player in the post-Assad era.
Perhaps Turkey has been the smartest power with an interest in Syria, providing safe haven, weapons and other forms of support. It is unsurprising that the anti-Assad forces are strongest in the region extending from the Turkish border. If the US (and, by extension, Australia) can take any comfort from this, it is that Turkey is firmly located within NATO and hence a “reliable partner”.
The real concern for the US, Australia and other states that have recognised the National Coalition is that it has little legitimacy on the ground in Syria. In a post-Assad Syria, the biggest mistake they could make would be to continue to endorse the National Coalition if it is not endorsed within Syria, as this would engender an anti-Western backlash that, for the moment, does not meaningfully exist.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University