The inevitable consequences of the Syrian Civil War

Written 30 December 2013

It is no news that there are now more islamist fighters in Syria than there are secular fighters. A large portion of these islamist fighters are aligned with al-Qaeda such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. My focus in this article will be on the increasingly large numbers of foreign fighter within the ranks of the jihadists in Syria. I will not describe their actions or campaigns within Syria, but what will happen once the war is over. As will be seen, one of the likely consequences of the Syrian Civil War will be an increase in international jihadism. This will happen regardless of who wins the war.

I think it is necessary to first describe the dangers posed by the consequences of the war. Syria can be considered the heart of the Middle East, giving access to the Levant, the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and Anatolia (while the Caucasus, Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula are not far). As such, much of what happens in Syria affects the rest of the region and the presence of jihadists poses a serious threat to the rest of the Middle East. However, the threat is not limited to just one region. Out of the nearly 10,000 foreign jihadists in Syria, many come from the Maghreb, the Balkans, and Central Asia. These men will return home eventually, bringing with them training and expertise which they otherwise might lack. Thus, the Syrian Civil War could have consequences for regions stretching from North Africa to Europe, to the Asian interior.

There are four possible scenarios to the war which I will explore: 1) Assad wins the war; 2) the rebels win the war and jihadists take over; 3) the rebels win the war and Assad is driven out, but a another civil war results between jihadists and secularists; 4) the war drags on for at least a decade. The first two would pose significant consequences for international terrorism, whereas the latter two would stymie what may happen. For each scenario, I will try to judge its likelihood — I will assume that there will be no military intervention like there was in Libya.

Assad wins

If Assad takes back full control of the country, there are few other options for foreign fighters besides returning home. What counts as home varies, with some returning to Europe and Africa and others to post-Soviet states. Without a military intervention, Assad has the upper hand and will continue to have the upper hand no matter how many arms flow into the hands of the rebels, due to the simple fact that Assad’s forces outnumber the rebels by a good margin. Even then, Assad’s soldiers are not only better-equipped, but also more cohesive, the latter being something which the rebels desperately lack. The likelihood of this happening is thus at about 35%, meaning that there is a good chance that the jihadists in Syria will be driven out, bringing with them the zeal and experience to lead jihad in their homelands.

Jihadists win

For this to happen, the jihadists have to not only far outnumber the FSA, but also delegitimize it. The continuation of the war is only likely to increase jihadi ranks, as has been the case up until now. However, this scenario is unlikely to happen. The jihadi ranks are not cohesive, with multiple groups on different ends of the islamist spectrum competing with each other for influence. While many of these fighters are the most experienced in the rebel ranks, they are unlikely to make the FSA obsolete. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that neighboring states (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.) would allow this to happen. The likelihood of this happening is at about 5% or less. However, if it does happen, it will probably have the most damaging consequences. Syria would serve a role similar to the one Afghanistan serves, becoming a haven for jihadist groups operating abroad. Neighboring Israel would be the most worried if this happens, something which it would not allow, further undermining the likelihood of this result.

Assad loses; second war between jihadists and FSA (and Kurds)

If the rebels do win, it is likely to involve both the FSA and the jihadis participating in the victory. However, it is likely that the resulting disagreements would not find resolution and another civil war will be the result. The Kurds in the north of the country would continue to strive for greater autonomy, taking part in their own campaigns against both the FSA and the jihadis (just as they are now). Although the likelihood of this happening is still low at about 10%, it is more likely than the jihadists taking over. This is simply due to the fact that the FSA, while no longer dominating as the main rebel combatant, is still one of the most numerous groups. Furthermore its armed groups are being armed and funded by various foreign powers, whether it is the United States or Turkey. The consequences this will have to international jihadism will be similar to the ones in the following scenario.

War drags on

The war could drag on for a decade or more. This is the most likely scenario, standing with about a 50% likelihood. This would not be unusual; political scientists have observed similar results with many civil wars resembling the Syrian war. One of the main reasons is that no matter how well-armed and experienced Assad’s troops are, foreign fighters and weapons will continue to flow into Syria, seeming to always revive what seemed to be a fledgling force near its demise. Furthermore, the asymmetrical nature of warfare in Syria sees rebels setting up bases which would be difficult for Assad’s army to reach. This is especially the case in eastern Syria, where the main jihadi strongholds are located. The fact that 60% of the population is Arab Sunni will furthermore feed rebel ranks with men willing to fight. Syria would thus serve as a sort of training grounds for international jihadists. While it may be the case that many jihadis will fight and die in Syria, diverting some of their actions in other countries, this does not seem to be the case elsewhere. Afghanistan serves as a training ground for jihadi fighters from around the world, with fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya going back home to lead further campaigns within their home countries. The consequences of the Syrian Civil War are already apparent in the Balkans, with a terror cell with experience in Syria being discovered in Kosovo. Thus, while many international jihadists will die in Syria, many others will return home and be in a position to lead their own campaigns there.

The inability of the international community to intervene in the Syrian Civil War is understandable, since Syria is a complex country with multiple ethnic and religious divisions. However, the international community will suffer from their inaction. The country which will probably suffer the most will be Russia. There is still an insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan faces intermittent flareups. There are large numbers of Caucasian groups fighting in Syria, and many of them will return home soon. They will only add experience and numbers to the already ongoing conflict and while we will probably not see conflict at the scale of the first or second Chechen wars, there will continue to be agitation. Thus, the country which positioned itself as Assad’s ally may suffer the most significant consequences.

Each of the scenarios I described above will pose significant consequences to international jihadism, regardless of their likelihood. It seems that there is little that can be done now. Israel is launching strategic airstrikes into Syria, in a seeming attempt to keep the armed groups fighting each other instead of launching attacks against the Jewish state. However, these actions are unlikely to fully contain the effects of the war for the region and the world.  After considering everything, I believe that there will be a flareup in international terrorism and jihadism in the coming years. The most that can be done is to try to stay vigilant. Whether or not the problems brought about by an early intervention would be worth it is impossible to determine and is not my goal to judge.