What Next for Syria?

More than 40,000 people have died in Syria’s two-year-old conflict. Questioning Authority spoke with Vincent Ferraro, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics, about the escalation of the Syrian conflict, the emerging role of the United States and the global community, and President Bashar al-Assad’s dwindling options. In mid-December, the United States joined many other countries in recognizing the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.

Questioning Authority: What is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces?

Vincent Ferraro: We don't know exactly what groups comprise this coalition. There are some internal groups and some groups in exile, some groups with long established Western ties, and some very new groups. We don't even know who the dominant voices are within the coalition, although many claim that mantle. The United States has been careful to exclude some groups, like al-Nusra, which has espoused a radical agenda, but we also know that there are similar groups that have not been so identified by the Western powers.

The lack of clarity within the coalition explains why progress has been so slow in coming to some sort of clear path for the United Nations. The Russians have acknowledged that Assad's days are numbered, but even they do not have a solid grasp on who to support within the coalition. Over time, things will become clearer, but that is of little solace to the civilians who are being killed on a daily basis.

QA: More than 100 countries back this new Syrian coalition. What is the significance of this level of support for the coalition?

VF: There are 130 states (there are 193 states in the U.N.) that have recognized the coalition. The large number has a legal significance since it is well above the normal threshold for diplomatic recognition of a new government. But the recognition has little political significance unless the coalition demonstrates some element of control within Syrian territory. The coalition has yet to do this in any sustained or meaningful way. Until some part of the territory is declared "Free Syria," there is little that recognition can accomplish. The territorial control is necessary for humanitarian groups or U.N. forces to make some sort of intervention or presence that could be used as a base of operations.

QA: What is the significance of the recent U.S. recognition of the coalition?

VF: The U.S. recognition is important since any outside intervention would have to rely very heavily on the U.S. military. The recognition gives the United States the legal authority to support a new government. But unless there is a logistical reality to the new government, the recognition has no substantive effect.

The U.S. delay [to recognizing the coalition] was due to the incoherence of the coalition. The United States is well aware that the Saudis are supporting some radical Wahabist groups in Syria that are implacably opposed to U.S. influence and to the existence of the state of Israel. The United States did not wish to legitimize these groups.

QA: The Syrian government has the support of several countries, such as Russia, China, and Iran. Why do these countries want Assad to stay in power?

VF: Each has different reasons. For the Russians, Assad is a reliable ally who has granted the Russians access to a port on the Mediterranean. Assad is also a good weapons client. (Syria accounts for 10 percent of Russian arms exports.) Additionally, the Russians and the Chinese share the same fear of UN intervention in internal conflicts. Both countries are susceptible to charges of internal conflict (the Russians in Chechnya and the Chinese in Xinjian Province and Tibet). After the U.N. intervention in Libya (ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, but later revealed to be for purposes of regime change), the Russians and Chinese are suspicious of the legal precedent of humanitarian intervention.

For Iran, the alliance with Syria is both sectarian and geopolitical. The Alawite sect that has ruled in Syria is an offshoot of the Shia Muslim sect that dominates Iranian politics. Syria also supports Hezbollah, an important Iranian ally in the Israeli dispute. Iran fears that the majority Sunni population in Syria will come to power, thereby limiting Iranian influence in the Middle East.

QA: What might the United States do now? Is there an historical precedent?

VF: There are precedents for humanitarian intervention: Somalia, 1991; Bosnia, 1995; Kosovo, 1998. There are also non-interventions such as Rwanda in 1994. I think the United States is gearing up to use NATO to intervene in Syria in order to sidestep Russian and Chinese opposition.

QA: What are Assad’s options?

VF: Assad has no options. He will die in office. But he apparently has decided to prolong the suffering for as long as he can. He should have tried to find some state for asylum, but those options no longer exist for him.

QA: If the Assad government is removed, what happens next in Syria?

VF: A new government will take power, but I won't even speculate on what it might look like. One can imagine that the indecision that characterizes Egypt and Tunisia will happen in Syria as well. It takes a long time for a revolution to settle down.

QA: What will happen to balance of power in the Middle East if the Assad government is removed? Which countries stand to lose and gain?

VF: Russia and Iran will lose influence. I don't think anyone will gain influence (the Saudis, the Americans, or the Israelis) until they establish working relations with the new government. I suspect that Turkey's influence will increase, and the Kurds will have larger opportunities open to them. But all those changes will take a long time to come to fruition.