Should Syrian president Bashar al-Assad fall, Syria’s problems will have only just begun. With the dictator gone, crime, score settling and a violent contest for power likely will ensue, keeping the streets unsafe and the people afraid. Iran, foreign jihadists and Syria’s neighbors may meddle to protect their interests or stir up trouble. Assad kept Syria’s rival communities in check through force, but his reign created underlying schisms. Now, the civil war has generated new ones. It also has turned the country’s economy, always struggling, into a disaster area. So far the splintered Syrian opposition has shown no skill in reassuring Syria’s minorities, and any new government’s initial legitimacy is likely to be weak.
Unlike other Arab Spring conflicts that have resulted in regime capitulation (Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) or regime decapitation (Libya), the long and bloody Syrian conflict is likely to generate a failed state requiring the kind of large-scale reconstruction efforts seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, some will call for America to step in to establish order. The United States has a long and rather ugly record in trying to help countries in Syria’s position. True, in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States has gained hard experience in the dos and (mostly) don’ts of state building. But the lessons from these and other state-building efforts suggest success requires considerable resources, excellent coordination within the government, long-term follow-through and serious planning for the postconflict period even as the war is being waged. None of these is likely to be present for any U.S. effort in a post-Assad Syria, given the current political and operational environment.
We argue here that the United States and its allies are unlikely to overcome Syria’s myriad problems and establish a peaceful, stable and democratic Syria. The likely lack of resources, poor governmental coordination and the sheer scale of Syria’s problems probably would spell failure for any ambitious efforts. Moreover, regime-change initiatives could backfire and complicate postregime plans.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.