Adam L. Silverman, PhD**
As the Syrian Civil War continues into its third year, there are several potential outcomes that we need to look out for and be concerned with. These are not just limited to Syria, but to the entire Levant, and even to Iran. So lets run the board in order:
There are really two key potential outcomes and one sequel for Syria itself: stalemate driven insurgency, the fall of the Assads leading to a Sunni majority takeover, and the withdrawl of the Alawites to Latakia.
It is, in some respects, both surprising and not surprising that the Assad government has held on for as long as it has. In many ways the Syrian Civil War is both an Assad and Alawite existential fight. which partially explains just how hard the government has responded and how far it is willing to go to survive. One of the two most likely outcomes to the dispute is that the government is strong enough to survive, but not strong enough to completely put down the rebellion and that the rebellion is not strong enough to overthrow the government, but just strong enough to survive. If this happens, then we will see a classic insurgency along the lines of what the Philippines has endured with the Moros on Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago and similar to what Columbia has faced with the FARC. In this situation Syria essentially gets carved up into two or more statelets - with government control in some areas and rebel control in others.
The second potential outcome is that the Assad government does fall and the Sunni majority, or some faction of it takes over. And it is this latter concept of faction that is important. There is clearly no good cohesion among the rebel groups, both the domestic Syrian and the foreign fighters/jihadis, as well as between them. While it may ultimately be a good thing for the region if Assad goes, it will not be a simple transition. The various factions are likely to try to consolidate power, claim and then establish legitimacy, and will come to blows with each other over who will take control. This possible outcome has the potential to turn into a Syrian version of the Thirty Years War, where different factions try to and/or actually seize power, seek to consolidate, face challenges to their legitimacy, and then the cycle of violent succession starts all over again. This would, unlike the actual Thirty Years War, not end in the creation of a secular state, as the Syrian Sunni majority is conservative and devout even though it is not Salafist. So do not expect a secular Sunni majority Syria to emerge.
In both of these two potential outcomes their is a sequel: the fallback of the Alawites, with or without the Assads, to their traditional lands in Latakia. Latakia is the mountainous strip of Syria below Turkey on the coast of the Mediterranean. While it is not completely fortifiable, it is certainly good ground - to paraphrase MG Buford - for digging in and trying to make a stand. Not only would this prolong the dispute, but it would complicate Syria's claims to their portions of the recently discovered Leviathan petroleum and natural gas field in the eastern Mediterranean.
The one wild card in all these potential outcomes, which is also a great transition to considering the rest of the Levant, are the Kurds. The Kurds are trans-national, have been seeking both a homeland and a chance to create one for well over a hundred years, and would be able to exploit the chaos of a Syrian implosion - either protracted stalemate and insurgency or Assad defeat and prolonged conflict regarding establishing a new Syrian state - to achieve their own national strategic goals: the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.
The biggest concern for the Levant is the humanitarian crisis being caused by the outflow of Syrian refugees - primarily into Lebanon and Jordan. The greatest concern is that Lebanon has had marked, historic difficulty dealing with demographic changes, especially those arising from refugee inflows. The potential parallels with the run up to the Lebanese Civil War are important to keep in mind, without slaving future outcomes to past ones. That Lebanon has recently undergone a mini-constitutional crisis, has an upcoming election, and that Hezbullah has a major interest in both exploiting any instability to further both its political aims within the Lebanese government and its illegitimate ones as a proxy for Iran, are all causes for concern in regard to the Syrian Civil War.
Jordan's stability is also a great concern. As King Abdullah II continues to try to both transition Jordan's Hashemite monarchy into something resembling a Levantine constitutional monarchy and transform the economy into a high tech services and knowledge based one, the stress from both Syria's Civil War and the inflow of Syrian refugees provides the Jordanian Muslim Brothers with opportunities they would otherwise not have. The Hashemite monarchy has been one of the most resilient governments in the Levant and the Middle East even when it appears weak, but a complete Syrian implosion would challenge it in ways it had not previously seen.
The Real Domino Effect: A Levantine Cascade Failure
And this brings us to the other players: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Israel's concerns are its own security and ensuring that nothing happens to the Jordanians, who have become important allies, as well as a buffer state of sorts. Should Jordan appear to be tottering it is likely that Israel will move based on its own interests. Moreover, should Lebanon appear to falter, especially given Israel's history of intervention there and the bad blood with Hezbullah, expect Israel to move militarily. Turkey would also have to engage in order to protect its own immediate interests, including trying to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, as well as to protect its ongoing attempt to become the regional hegemon.
This brings us to Iran... Iran has a huge interest in what happens in Syria and the Levant. It views the area as its near abroad - politically, religiously, and strategically. Syria and the Levant provide a vital corridor between Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbullah and has been one area where its meddling in regional politics, aside from post Saddam Iraq, has been quite successful, unlike the largely failed attempts to stir up the Shi'a pluralities and majorities in several of the Gulf States under cover of the Arab Spring. Moreover, while Ayatullah Khameini is still the supreme religious authority, there have been ongoing challenges to his authority by Ahmedinihad and a number of his influential supporters, which we can expect to only intensify as Iran fully enters its election cycle later this year. The loss of an Iranian client in the Assads and Syria, which would cut the life line through northern Syria to Hezbullah in Lebanon, and create a huge crisis of legitimacy for Ayatullah Khameini, the Quds Force, and Iran's attempts to establish itself as a regional power with a Twelver Shi'a sphere of influence.
The Levant, unlike East and Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, has the real possibility of being home to a domino effect. Unlike the concern that if Korea or Vietnam succumbed to Communism there would be a wave of one East or Southeast Asian state after another falling, the Syrian Civil War, the humanitarian crisis it has created through the creation of a large body of refugees in neighboring states, and the general instability in the region that predated, but was exacerbated by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, has the potential to create an actual domino effect. If the outcome of the Syrian Civil War is not handled correctly, regardless of the outcome, it is possible to see several states in the region become destabilized or further destabilized in way that leads to regional crisis in the shape of a cascade of regional warfare, failing and failed states.
* Image can be found here: levanttech.com/images/levantmap.jpg
** Adam L. Silverman is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Army War College and/or the US Army.