Planning for a post-Assad Syria?

It looks as though at least some Syrians are looking ahead to the fall of the Assad government, hoping to ensure that ending Assad’s reign also ends the war. Sectarian strife seems to be a big worry—and perhaps rightly so—but it’s important to look at *why* we might see continuing violence on sectarian lines after the immediate objective of toppling the government is achieved. In other words, why would some rebels think that continued war is better than peace, even with Assad gone? Well, the answer isn’t necessarily about religion—it’s just as much about the politics of war.

If the war continues beyond the fall of the current government, my guess is that expectations about the future—beliefs about who’ll be in charge of what (and how effectively) in a new government—will be a big reason. The committee that put these recommendations together focuses in large part on repatriation, but they also mention a disarmament program that re-establishes the line between the military and civilians. In principle, this is necessary for being a modern nation-state, and while it’s hard to dispute in principle, it’s precisely this kind of provision that can cause serious problems for rebels that have to consider what their fates will be after they lay down their arms in apparent victory.

Put yourself, if you will, at the head of some rebel faction—defined geographically, religiously, ethnically, whatever—and think about the choice you face. Fighting is expensive and risky, but it gives you a chance to ensure by force of arms some favorable outcomes. On the other hand, laying down your arms and trusting in a new government makes you vulnerable—all the more so if you don’t trust that whoever’s in charge of the new government won’t use its monopoly on force to renege on whatever promises they made to get you into the peace agreement in the first place, shutting you out of the rights or privileges you were previously fighting for.

What does that mean? The success of any nationwide peace agreement—essentially, whatever the new constitution looks like—will depend on how well it commits the newly powerful to not taking advantage of the currently powerful once they return to civilian life. If any group feels that they’d be better off fighting than signing on to an agreement they don’t think will stick—that is, submitting to a government that they can’t trust not to victimize them—then we’ll have even more bloodshed. Yes, political allegiances often overlap with sectarian ones, but it’s important to note that it’s not religious differences themselves behind such a problem but basic questions of politics (who gets what, who makes those decisions, etc.). For the most part, each faction—however latent—currently fighting will need to have its military prospects reflected in any kind of postwar settlement that it’ll ultimately accept, and that means structuring a political settlement that reflects military realities. However much we like to think that peace and war can be separated, the former is best sustained when it reflects a good understanding of the latter.

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