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Scenarios For Syria: With Or Without Assad, Chaos Most Likely Outcome

Most observers consider it unlikely that Bashar al-Assad can hang on to power in Syria. But even if he does fall, what happens next?
Most observers consider it unlikely that Bashar al-Assad can hang on to power in Syria. But even if he does fall, what happens next?
As the conflict in Syria rages on, possible future outcomes would appear to depend on whether President Bashar al-Assad holds on to power or falls, and if he does go, whether some sort of order prevails or Syria descends into chaos.


Civil War

Assad's regime falls, and Syria's multiethnic and multisectarian society bares its teeth. Increased sectarian violence leads to full-blown civil war.

"In Syria we have sectarian differences where an Alawite regime based on an Alawite minority is perhaps going to lose power to a Sunni majority that controls about 70 percent of the population," says Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's office of Intelligence for Near East and South Asia.

"Also there is a Christian minority of 10 percent, which has been at least passively supportive of the regime. So we're probably going to see differences among extremist and moderate rebels. We're going to see differences from region to region and ethnic and sectarian score-settling."

Amid the chaos of civil war, Syria splinters into separate enclaves with ambitions to become autonomous republics within Syria, or even separate states.

Alawite Ministate

Upon being ousted from Damascus, Assad's regime dominated by the Alawite minority retreats to its heartland in western Syria. From its mountainous stronghold, the new ministate is in a position to consolidate power and battle its enemies.

Fabrice Balanche, director of the French research center Gremmo and an expert on Syria, says there is a good chance such a state could receive outside support.

"Russia and Iran can support an Alawite state on the coast, like [Russia's support for] Abkhazia in Georgia," Balanche says. "For Russia, so it can keep its [naval] base in Tartus. For Iran, it's not bad because it can keep [influence] in the Mediterranean Sea, and it can keep a small state to help Hizballah in Lebanon."

Kurds Break Away

The country's Kurds, building on the power they were ceded by Assad as the insurgency grew, make their bid for independence.

The sight of the Kurdish flag causes alarm in Ankara, which fears that its archenemy, the Kurdistan Workers Party, will gain a new staging ground to attack Turkey and incite Turkey's own Kurdish population.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to Iraq's Kurdish region in early August to discuss the prospect of Syrian Kurdish autonomy with Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani. Now Davutoglu looks to build on assurances he received from Barzani that efforts to exploit the power vacuum in Syria would be considered a common threat.

In neighboring countries, the chaos in Syria raises tensions between Sunnis and Shi'a. Deadly clashes that broke out early on in northern Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime spread.

In Iran, the fall of Assad costs Tehran its main strategic ally in the region. To make up for the loss, Iran does its best to regain a foothold in Syria by capitalizing on contacts it cultivated within the Syrian opposition while Assad was still in power.

At the broader level, the situation in Syria heightens the rivalry among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

Humanitarian Cost

Eighteen months of insurgency have left 17,000 dead in Syria, and those numbers continue to climb as the fighting spreads. Waves of Syrians decide to join the tens of thousands of refugees who have already taken refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, and other neighboring countries.

Likelihood: Most observes agree -- the fall of Assad falls is not a matter of if, but when.


Coalition Government

The Free Syrian Army ousts Assad, and embarks on an orderly transition under a coalition that includes various opposition groups. Much of the groundwork has already been laid due to the efforts of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group that worked from Turkey during the insurgency. As a result, a transitional unity government is able to quickly implement its ready-made constitution and election law.

Regional Impact

Those who supported Assad's regime in the international arena have lost face with his ouster in the eyes of the Syrian opposition, and some now face repercussions at home.

"If the Assad regime falls, after the fall of the Mubaraks, the Qaddafis, and the Ben Alis, I think this would be an important impetus for the people inside Iran to rise again, once again against [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad and the regime of the ayatollahs," says Ed Husein, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"And I think they're very wary, much like the Russians are, of the kind of precedent this sets that when you have mass uprisings backed by the West, to some extent in varying degrees, what happens is that the uprisings win. And if they can hold it down and at least set one precedent in the region that it didn't work, it plays to their advantage both domestically and regionally."

The fall of Bashar al-Assad (right ) would be a "disaster" for Iran and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The fall of Bashar al-Assad (right ) would be a "disaster" for Iran and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
No Assad in Damascus would also be a "horrible scenario" for Iran in terms of its broader regional influence, particularly its support for Lebanon's Hizballah, says the Middle East Institute's Wayne White.

"It means that Iran will be very hard-pressed to supply Hizballah with weapons and ammunition and other materials because all of that, practically all of that, came through Damascus International Airport," he notes, "and a new regime angry with the Allawite previous rulers for their support of the Shi'a in Lebanon and angry at Iran, will surely cut that off."

In turn, Hizballah is also "a significant loser," says Bruce W. Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.

"They're losing their principal supporter in Syria," he adds. "I think they have also lost some face among the Lebanese people to the extent that the violence has come over to the borders in Lebanon, a country that has had much too much violence of its own over the past few decades.

Russia, too, pays heavily. "So if the Assad regime falls, Russia's investment, Russia's equities in Syria are finished," White says. "She will lose her naval base at Larakia and she will lose her arms contracts there. She will lose her large embassy there. For the Russians it will be a catastrophe."

Likelihood: The fragmented state of the Syrian opposition and the lack of coherent leadership mean the odds are stacked against a coalition pulling off an orderly transition. And given the level of violence and atrocities that have taken place in Syria, most analysts are not optimistic of reconciliation and dialogue.


Assad shakes off the rebellion and high-level defections within his camp and emerges victorious. With the support of the Syrian Army, and unabated repression against rebel areas, he has worn down the resistance. Assad's control of the country's stockpile of chemical weapons staves off any thought of outside intervention and makes to dangerous to topple from within. A major crackdown against members of the Free Syrian Army ensues, and members of the opposition are forced to leave the country or go underground.

Nevertheless, Assad is not in an envious position. Attacks by radical Islamists active in Syria rise. Assad's regime stands isolated, and faces tremendous challenges due to sanctions, a poor economy, and international pressure.

Regional Impact

Russia remains one of Assad's main allies, takes the diplomatic high road, and continues to support Syria internationally.

Iran boosts assistance to its only Arab ally and builds on the precedent set that not all regional uprisings backed by the West are successful.

Likelihood: Most observers consider the prospect of Assad remaining in power to be highly unlikely. But it isn't entirely out of the question.

Gremmo director Balanche says there are at least two possible scenarios under which he could retain power. "He could stay in power if the Free Syrian Army is, for example divided, if there is fighting within the Free Syrian Army and some members accept negotiations with Assad, for example," he says.

The other would be for internal actors to end their support for the Free Syrian Army. "If you have deal between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that Saudi and Qatar accept to not support the Free Syrian Army, then why not?" Balanche says.


Islamist Threat

Radical insurgents who have taken up arms across Syria have gained strength as a result of the insurgency.

"Al-Qaeda in Syria is on the increase and, with or without the Assad regime in place, Al-Qaeda is set to play an important role in months to come," notes Husein of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Rogue Chemical Weapons

Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons falls into unpredictable hands, leaving the entire world on high alert.

"With Islamic militants loose in the country, some of which are openly declaring allegiance to Al-Qaeda, they could, some of them, get into extremist hands in the international arena, which is very dangerous. And also, a regime which was falling might pass them, in its death agony, pass some of them to Hizballah," says the Middle East Institute's Wayne White.

"And the most lethal part of the arsenal is comprised of missiles with chemical-tipped warheads and artillery shells, and so if Hizballah gets a hold of that the Israelis are going to be absolutely terrified."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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