Three Outcomes in Syria

A couple of months ago, my friend Nadim Shehadi made an interesting comment in one of this blog’s discussions about potential “solutions” to the Syrian crisis. I’ve been meaning to publish his contribution as a stand-alone commentary ever since, and I do so now with his permission. If developments in the intervening months have changed his views, I trust he’ll weigh in below.


Three Outcomes in Syria 

Guest commentary by Nadim Shehadi

syria-ottomanThe word ‘solution’ is misleading because it implies that there is a problem and that it will be resolved and that the outcome would be ‘good’. I prefer the word ‘outcome’ because there are several and not all are ‘good’.

I can see three possible outcomes:

Outcome #1 is Iraq 1991-2003. I urge you to look up the statements from the period, as they are echoed by those we hear now about Syria. The outcome would be as follows: Assad is kept in power and allowed to crush the rebellion. There would be some protection of areas like the north and the south. Crippling sanctions would drive Syria back to the Stone Age. Occasionally there would be military strikes but they would be calibrated not to upset the balance. Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and he wrote later that the US’s practical intention was to leave the regime in Baghdad with enough power to survive. So, in a nutshell the first outcome would be to keep Bashar in power, pretend to hit him from time to time, and severely punish the Syrian people for having disturbed the peace and stability we all so cherish.

Outcome #2 is, in a nutshell, something like the Dayton Agreement. Take a snapshot of the current balance of power on the ground and freeze it in an agreement. In Lebanon, a Dayton would have been the agreement between the militias in 1985 when the country was very neatly partitioned between the warlords. I recommend a visit to Sarajevo to listen to what the Bosnians think of the Dayton Agreement. When I was there in December I could understand very well when they said that what was implemented was based on reality at the very worst time in their history. They are not really like that but they have no options to return to a model of coexistence because the agreement sets very strict boundaries. So a Dayton in Syria would mean a conference where Bashar also remains in power and becomes the governor of the coastal region and there would be boundaries between the Alawite area, Druze area, Ismaili towns, Kurdish areas, tribal areas etc.

Outcome #3 is something like the Ta’if Agreement which means an abstract dysfunctional power-sharing agreement that would keep Syria as one state and one society but where the interests of all groups would be taken into account and no group would be able to take over and have absolute power. This is the internal element of Taif which was, in effect, reached as early as 1976.

The thirteen years that followed the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976 produced the second part of Ta’if which included the mandate to ‘keep the peace’. In fact Assad is now asking for that second part of Ta’if in Syria itself where he remains in power or else all hell will break loose. It was hell in Lebanon, but it froze over when Assad was in charge. I am not talking about this part of Ta’if, as in Syria this would be the first outcome described above (i.e. Iraq 1991-2003).

So, outcome #3 would be without Assad, I know he will be missed especially in Washington, but there you are. One has to make sacrifices for peace. It would be a decentralized state, with no boundaries as such but with administrative measures that give locals the choice of shaping how they want to live with enough checks and balances to ensure that no single group will take over. Kurds will be Kurds, you would have topless beaches in Tartus and niqabs in parts of Raqqa and the country would be able to live uncomfortably with all these contradictions.

These very checks and balances would also paralyze the central government in times of crisis, but you can’t have it all and government would not really matter because it does not do much anyway. This will of course be declared to be a “temporary solution”. The model is pre-modern; everybody will hate it and Syrians can pay lip service to abolishing it. A minority will be foreign-funded to create ‘secular’ movements and all twenty of them can demonstrate outside the Syrian parliament demanding that the system be abolished.

Your thoughts?


32 thoughts on “Three Outcomes in Syria

  1. Outcome 4:

    Fighting goes on for another year during which Saudi Arabia and its allies (GCC and Syrian opposition and French and American neocons and Al-Qaeda international …) try to escalate … sending the planets more messed up lunatics armed with weapons and cash … then you have a serious commitment from the allies of the Syrian government (I stopped calling it the regime). And let the best side win … much more destruction … a million innocent Syrian civilians will die of cold, hunger, disease …

    At some point it gets too hot to handle. We are there already for many players in the region and internationally.

    Syria will not be allowed to burn for 15 years like Lebanon did, for many reasons.

    Posted by Camille Alexandre Otrakji | November 23, 2013, 5:33 pm
  2. Option three is unlikely. It requires an outside occupation army to disarm the militias. This is what happened in Lebanon. Syria occupied Lebanon and disarmed the militias, allowing the remains 76 parliamentarians of the prewar period to go to Taif and agree to a new power-sharing deal. The only militias Syria did not disarm were Hizb and Palestinians, which went on to make a lot of trouble for Taif and the weak Lebanese state. But the major parties to the conflict were disarmed or cowed, which lay the groundwork for Taif. In Syria, there will be no occupying power to either build a new state (as the US did in Iraq with the Maliki government while suppressing contenders, or to disarm the contending militias, as Syria did in Lebanon. Plus, you don’t tell us how you are going to get rid of Assad. The first two options seem realistic. There is a third option, which is the Turkish model without Ataturk. The Turks got rid of their 18% Christian population and through ethnic cleansing, created a more homogeneous population that could bind together in a nation. Of course the Kurds have resisted Turkification, but may be drawn in now that they can realize their desire for national expression in Iraq and possibly Syria. The only reason Turkey found its way to a soft landing from military dominated regime to one ruled by parliament and “law and constitution” (we hope) is because no Christian voting bloc of 18% existed. Had Christians remained in Turkey, they would have voted for the Kemalists and military dictatorship, stalling political evolution toward democracy. This might have led to political breakdown and violence. If Syrians could get rid of their religious minorities, who refuse to accept devolution of political power to Muslim majority, they could nation build, perhaps without all the violence? Of course, you will say the big difference between Turkey and Syria is Ataturk and the existence of a united nationalist movement that was secular, etc. You would be right. Another reason, I am not optimistic about a Syrian solution anytime soon. Most of the rebel militias have abandoned the Syrian flag for the black flag of Islam.

    Posted by joshlandis | November 23, 2013, 6:14 pm
  3. Religious “minorities” have no problem with elected Syrians from any religion. They probably prefer perhaps another decade where the army is still under the same power structure. If by then the population (and the region) are handling “freedom” safely, then more change could meet no significant resistance.

    It was an absolutely criminal mistake for anyone who pushed for full change … Arab Spring style, for Syria.

    Another thing: There are many ways to divide Syria among in-groups and out-groups. (or “minorities” and “a majority”)… religion is important for many, but for many others patriotism is more important … secularism vs. extremism is another … Urban vs. rural …

    But feel free to filter everything and keep seeing one color … sectarianism.

    Posted by Camille Alexandre Otrakji | November 23, 2013, 7:02 pm
  4. Yes Camille Lebanon was different because Assad was ‘allowed to burn [it] for fifteen years’ حاميها حراميها. When I look at events in Syria I see the regime doing to it what it did in Lebanon: City after city, town after town, Zanga after Zanga were besieged and bombed into submission. Same with the Palestinian camps. PFLP GC & Saiqa would attack a Christian village & Syrian troops would come to ‘protect’ it. Islamist groups would spring from nowhere and kidnap westerners and they would be released in Damascus.

    Josh, Turkish ‘secularism’ is from the last century. Baathism is a variant of that homogenizing nationalist model. I am not sure which is worse.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | November 23, 2013, 9:19 pm
  5. War in Syria will continue for another 2-3 years unabated. Those that believe the Sunni will win the day are on crack. Iran will not allow an outright victory for the Sunni in Syria, so whatever Josh Landis was trying to explain is not going to happen. A new middle east will be carved out of the madness that we see today. That has been the plan for 15 or so years, there are a few maps online that demonstrate what the middle east will look like. Iraq is next for a civil war, and a few more Countries will follow suite. So the forth option is a bit different, it’s not a Syrian solution to the Syrian crisis, it’s a middle east solution to the Syrian crisis.

    Posted by Just another expert | November 23, 2013, 9:25 pm
  6. Outcome #4 is Iraq 2007, where Shia fighting forces in effect conquered Baghdad by force of arms and politically control the country with close relations with Iran.

    Posted by Mark Pyruz | November 23, 2013, 9:34 pm
  7. Nadim sadly the world is full of officials, diplomats, analysts. Academics and journalists who joined at some point in the past on one of 3 regime change festivals … but failed to celebrate at the end.

    Syria is being destroyed by everyone, including all who worked so hard on a crazy project that I warned from day 1 will lead to death and destruction … Not regime change.

    Posted by Camille Alexandre | November 23, 2013, 10:09 pm
  8. I am not sure I follow how Washington is supporting Assad. Washington, smartly is refusing to engage in a religious turf war. Whether the Iranians or Saudis/Gulfies/Sunni Radicals control the region matters little, except obviously to any religious minority that exists in the region. Both are oppressive powers who are dependent on quickly depleting resources to extend their power. You also do not mention the Kurds, which is a wild card, which can weaken all of the strongest regional states (turkey, iran, iraq, and syria), which of course nobody in the region wants. That is of course unless Washington is actually forward thinking and realizes the benefit from weakening all of these states, and creating an actual ally.

    Ultimately though, with the emergence of alternative sources of energy (fracking, etc), this region is quickly reverting back to irrelevance. As such, Washington will increasingly be agnostic to it. Does France want to sell arms to Saudi Arabia? Go ahead! Does Russia want to be close to Egypt? Go ahead!

    This region is a headache that brings zero benefit, and ultimately intractable (and Israel should be included in this description as well).

    Posted by Arisrules | November 24, 2013, 4:47 am
  9. “Syrians could get rid of their religious minorities” mr landis does that apply to Lebanon ? should we pack up and leave because you want a homogeneous society to justify the existence of Israel as a Jewish state? so it is a conspiracy of the American academic with the Israelis and the wahabis they all want to get rid rid of the minorities. well guess what we were here thousands of years before your paymasters the illiterate camel riding Bedouins invaded. we are not going anywhere and as we say in Lebanon you can go
    “tile the sea”

    Posted by erraticmind | November 24, 2013, 3:24 pm
  10. I think we shoukd let the Israelis govern the ME since the arabs have been having difficulty. I think it should be temporary contract work. Once this is implemented, and arabs are allowed to vote and speak their minds, Israel could slowly transition to arab control once they have the 3 branches of govt up and running.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 24, 2013, 4:05 pm
  11. My assessment is that the war will continue for a very long time because of several reasons:
    1) It is a Saudi interest to keep the Iranians and Hezbollah occupied in Syria.
    2) It is everyone’s interest (except Syria) that the jihadis of the world are sucked into Syria and are not causing trouble somewhere else, especially the West. For example, every British jihadi that dies in Syria is one less risk for a terror attack in the UK. Furthermore, the jihadis are out in the open and can be tracked if they return.
    3) The regime and its supporters is too brittle to survive without an Assad at the helm. They really cannot compromise about Assad because they have no alternative that even comes close and can keep the government camp together. With no ability to compromise on Assad, the only alternative is more war.
    4) The opposition is fragmented and the forces on the ground cannot be controlled. The opposition cannot even negotiate a cease fire because it cannot make the forces on the ground stop fighting.
    5) As mentioned in other comments, no external force is willing to step in and stop the fighting.
    6) The outside parties that are suffering most from the mess in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, are too weak and have very little influence. There is no important Western interest that is being hurt by the Syrian war. The only question is Turkey, but the pain there really needs to ratchet up to make it want to actively end the war at whatever cost, and I don’t see that happening.
    7) The Iranians are willing to spend billions to keep Assad going and the Saudis are willing to spend billions to keep the opposition going.

    I am sure there are other reasons I did not list.

    So how will it end? My assessment is that a few years down the road the intensity of the fighting will start to diminish and the war will change into a low intensity one. So it would kind of peter out with a fractured Syria emerging. Game changers could be regime change in KSA or Iran, but that is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

    Posted by AIG | November 24, 2013, 4:49 pm
  12. I would opt for regime change in Iran. I’ll get Secretary of State John Kerry to work on that as soon as he’s finished throwing Jews and Sunnis under the bus.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 24, 2013, 7:18 pm
  13. I agree with the assessment that ‘outcome’ is better fit than ‘solution’. However, an open system with un-identifiable forces will have an infinite number of outcomes. Let’s try to rank these predominant forces and guess their direction right, then we might (just might) narrow the list of outcomes: Oil/Gas (what you and I consume avidly), US empire impotence, Russian nostalgia, Iranian narcissism, Gulf state gullibility, Turkish ‘delight’ and Lebanese ludicrousness. Throw in the mix the elements of surprise, spontaneity or human error and all bets are off (but, hey… good luck guessing!)

    Posted by carl | November 24, 2013, 9:07 pm
  14. ahlan bi carl


    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 24, 2013, 9:43 pm
  15. i’m only a dog (iOAD™), but i think Outcome #1 is most likely, though with a different motivation and flavor from the policy toward Iraq, 1992-2003. Saddam was kept in power as a bastion against Iran. Why Bush II abandoned this goal and put the Shiites in power there is a mystery. In contrast, Bashar will likely be kept in power as part of the Western effort to normalize relations with Iran (or “appease” Iran, if you wish). This in turn is driven by an effort by the U.S. to get its nose out of the region’s business (at least to some extent) — which frankly doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. By gentlemen’s agreement, we can let Iran run the no-fly zone.

    i also am not sure this outcome will be so bad. Bashar looks rather appetizing compared to most of his armed opposition.

    Posted by sam adams the dog (@samadamsthedog) | November 24, 2013, 11:32 pm
  16. Why Bush II abandoned this goal and put the Shiites in power there is a mystery.

    iOAD™ (can we just call you iPAD?),

    Both the Bush and Obama administrations believed, perhaps naively, that elections should determine who rules a country. We Americans feel strongly about this as we believe free elections are the most stable form of government in the long run.

    That is why Bush helped to faciliate free elections in Iraq and Obama wanted free elections in Egypt.

    What hasn’t been discussed, is how weak these governments are. Once elections are completed, the job of governing begins. Both of these countries are dealing with substantial insurgencies, a weak military and police, and weak judiciaries. This is indicative of almost all arab countries. They have difficulty protecting themselves and they have trouble governing themselves.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 25, 2013, 9:59 am
  17. Danny,

    Sorry the Ravens blew up the Jets this past week. Maybe Mark Sanchez needs to warm up on the sideline.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 28, 2013, 3:25 pm
  18. Under 20 responses for a post that seemed to promise over a hundred. What has becometh of Syria we lament.

    Posted by Maverick | November 28, 2013, 11:53 pm
  19. AP,

    There’s always a next year. 😀
    Jets still have a 1% chance of making it lol…


    All armchair quarterbacking is exactly that! No one is addressing it the correct way. What situation or arrangement is the right one for Israel…Then move on from there!

    Posted by danny | November 29, 2013, 11:22 am
  20. Without arabs having the ability to effect change in their respective governments, perhaps participants are growing disinterested.

    That is why, I think, QN should change to an all-sports network.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 29, 2013, 11:26 am
  21. QN,
    What happened to Alex’s page on facebook?

    Posted by AIG | November 30, 2013, 8:56 pm
  22. So it’s like that, is it? You only come over here to comment when Alex’s page is down? I get it.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 30, 2013, 9:36 pm
  23. It is now your chance to shine… 🙂

    Posted by AIG | November 30, 2013, 10:20 pm
  24. We can thank the Iranian mullahstan for pushing the Zionist Entity into the arms of the arab world.


    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 2, 2013, 7:49 am
  25. QN,
    Here are a few issues I would be interested to hear your view on:
    1) The Syrian refugee’s impact on Lebanon
    2) Why is it taking so long to form a Lebanese government and when will it succeed?
    3) When will there be parliamentary elections?
    4) What about the election of the president?
    5) What is holding back the development of off shore natural resources?

    Posted by AIG | December 2, 2013, 4:23 pm
  26. Good questions.

    1. Potentially massively unstabilizing, if not addressed in the medium term.
    2. I’m writing a piece on this subject for Carnegie; should be up later this week.
    3. Dependent on #2.
    4. Dependent on #3.
    5. There are smart people who’ve been following this issue. Check out Matt Nash’s commentary for NOW.

    The semester is nearly over. I will gently coax this blog back to life when it does.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 3, 2013, 9:15 am
  27. As Iran’s chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived home to a hero’s welcome of flowers and flags, Arab Shiites fell into step with Tehran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq expressed his “full support for this step.” President Bashar Assad of Syria effusively welcomed the agreement as “the best path for securing peace and stability.” Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri of Lebanon called it the “deal of the century.” Hezbollah considered the agreement a “great victory for Iran.” Pro-Iran media echoed these sentiments; for example, the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar trumpeted the deal as a grand Iranian triumph.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 3, 2013, 10:57 pm
  28. There once was a man named Lakkis,
    who was protecting Lebanon from latkes.
    He stepped out one day, and the killer got away,
    and there’s no martyr check, so he gets bubkes.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 4, 2013, 5:36 pm
  29. “Qifa Nabki, run by Elias Muhanna, a professor at Brown University in America, is the leading blog on Lebanese politics…”


    Posted by danny | December 4, 2013, 7:21 pm
  30. These three options are not very original. They are just three ways recent big conflicts were ended. I don’t see any clear rationale why these outcomes are preferred to others. Specifically any options requiring outside intervention (all of these (1) The US was bombing Iraq (2) Nato was enforcing Dayton (3) Syria enforced Taif) all seem completely unlikely given that there are no outside parties with the will and power to do anything except perhaps Iran and Russia together, and they would;t go for any of the above.

    Posted by Epok | December 31, 2013, 8:52 am


  1. Pingback: Three Outcomes in #Syria | YALLA SOURIYA - November 23, 2013

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