Within the first year of the Syrian rebellion, a number of intelligence agencies and media outlets said the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad had only months to live. Stratfor saw it differently. The battle was proceeding at a rapid pace, and things definitely looked dicey for the government at times, but we knew this would be a protracted fight. For one thing, the Alawites, while a naturally fractious lot, were facing an existential crisis against a Sunni majority and were not going to crumble easily. For another, the divisions within the rebel landscape (and among the rebels' foreign sponsors) were so great that both sides lacked the means to overwhelm and defeat the other.
Many of those constraints still apply, but things are now moving in a direction that admittedly has us on the edge in contemplating a scenario after al Assad. The Syrian government's loss of Idlib province in March, the key to holding the northern city of Aleppo, was the turning point. Now rebels backed primarily by Turkey and Qatar are moving from the north and closing in on loyalist forces, while rebels sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Jordan are pushing from the south toward Damascus. With the help of Hezbollah, the government has been able to maintain a corridor running from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley through Damascus, Homs and Hama to connect to the coast, but guarding the approaches to this core will be tricky. Rebels are already encroaching on the coast from the north and from the east, and the Islamic State is refocusing its attention on the Homs-Hama region in addition to its battles in the north.
The government is not on the verge of losing its core territory, but it is highly stressed. The rebels can now turn their combat power in multiple directions, while the regime is in a highly reactive state. It will take an incredible amount of reinforcements — far beyond the level of support that Iran has contributed so far — to turn the situation around. And with coffins piling up day by day, morale among Syrian government forces and their allies in Hezbollah is at an all-time low.
The United States and Russia, for their own reasons, are thinking that now is as good a time as ever to try to impose a negotiated settlement. For Russia, the weaker the Syrian government becomes, the less chance Moscow has of retaining any meaningful influence in the Levant. Moreover, any role Russia plays in creating a settlement can be used to negotiate with the United States on other pertinent issues. For Washington, a plan to train another force of rebels set apart from the Islamist radicals is already floundering, and there is little the United States can do to refocus the rebels' attention on Washington's main concern, the Islamic State.
We know Russia has been expending a lot of energy visiting with the Gulf Arab sponsors, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and trying to convince these states to bring their respective rebel factions to the table. We have also been told that during a June 2 meeting in Paris hosted by the Americans and the French to discuss the evolving Islamic State threat with coalition partners, a closed-door discussion was allegedly held with Gulf Arab countries to discuss what a negotiated settlement on Syria would look like.
The first step would be to extricate al Assad to make the negotiation politically palatable to enough rebel factions. Russia and Iran, neither a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, have been considered countries that could host al Assad in exile. Then there is the issue of finding ranking Alawite officers who carry enough credibility with their troops and enough will to move against al Assad to help form an interim government. In light of the lesson learned from de-Baathification in Iraq, heavy Alawite participation in a post-al Assad government would be a prerequisite to maintaining the institutions needed to manage Syria and to rout threats like the Islamic State. Sources have indicated that the United States has been in communication with Alawite officers in Damascus to try to determine whether the beleaguered minority is ready to move against its president. Russia would also likely play a role in helping organize a bloodless coup and pressuring al Assad to accept his fait accompli.
Given the state of the Syrian fight, holding such discussions makes sense. Whether these efforts would result in a viable power-sharing agreement, however, is an entirely different question. The Sunni sponsors of the fight would want to ensure that the rebel factions they have backed would play a leading role in the next government. Turkey and Qatar, for example, would not be on the same page as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Moreover, with Iran finalizing a deal with the United States and expecting to economically rehabilitate itself, the Sunni powers are going to be more interested in keeping the fight going in order to cripple Iran's position in the Levant before entertaining concessions to the Alawites.
Meanwhile, morale is soaring among the multitude of rebel factions. If they feel they can bring the government to its knees, then the battle will continue. (In fact, foreign sponsors would also be hampered by their limited influence over some of the key rebel factions; it would be much easier to bring the Free Syrian Army to the table, for instance, than Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.) And if the Alawites rip themselves apart in a coup attempt, it would benefit the Sunni factions trying to create room for themselves in a Syria without al Assad.
Al Assad's removal will be required to bring enough rebels to the table for any hope of a deal, but ironically, his ouster would also guarantee the destruction of any agreement in the end. The target on al Assad is what binds hardcore jihadists and secular moderates together in this rebel campaign. Strip that away, and the underlying rivalries that are already difficult to manage would overwhelm any attempt to divvy up power. And so long as these factions are focused on fighting each other for the spoils, there would be little stopping the Islamic State. It's a pessimistic prognosis but a sober one. The United States needs only to look to Libya to get a glimpse of post-al Assad Syria. It doesn't get much better from here.