Small Wars Journal

Syria: The True Chaos Will Begin After the Fall of the Regime

Mon, 05/06/2013 - 3:30am

Abstract: Syria is already in crisis but the death or departure of President Bashar al-Asad is likely to intensify violence and destruction in the country, not quell it. With the conflict already growing more sectarian in nature, Western governments should be prepared for Asad’s exit to serve as a catalyst for increased chaos and a proliferation of violence between religious and ethnic blocs. In turn, Syria has the potential to become embroiled in ethno-sectarian strife similar but potentially worse than that which has pervaded Iraq since the middle of the last decade. Alawites, Salafists, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, and Druze all have equities in Syria and current conflicts between those groups will only be exacerbated. Those groups fighting together today against the Asad regime will likely find themselves enemies after the regime falls. Increased ethno-sectarian violence in Syria makes no promise of staying within the country’s borders and any spillover to Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan could turn the Syrian sectarian conflict into a regional war.  

Syria Today

The devastation resulting from the Syrian crisis thus far is staggering. As of mid-February, the United Nations estimated close to 70,000 people had been killed and more than 950,000 refugees had fled Syria.[1],[2] Both numbers are undoubtedly higher now, more than three months later, with reports that March 2013 was the deadliest month in Syria since the war began.[3] A significant portion of the international discussion on Syria revolves around asking when the Asad regime will fall, inherently linking the end of the regime to the end of the violence. To make such a link is shortsighted.

The current conflict in Syria is highlighted by competition between the Asad regime and a loose coalition of groups who have little in common with each other but their opposition to Asad. Whenever the fighting actually ends, it will not be the end of the Arab Spring or even the Syrian conflict. Rather it is more likely to portend the next chapter in Syria’s evolution that spans the gambit from part of the Ottoman Empire to an Alawi-dominated state. Syria will be more sectarian and violent. While politically the country may have the veneer of a nation-state, its man-made provincial and external boundaries have less meaning, trumped by natural divisions that are a result of tribal, cultural, and religious bounds. Syria’s diversity trumps modern-day Iraq’s where there is less a homogenous state than three power centers of Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia influence, all of which overlap at times leading to violence and conflict.

Before the ethno-sectarian violence becomes inevitable however, Western powers along with Russia and China have a moral responsibility to try everything possible to prevent it from occurring by encouraging and creating opportunities for a smooth transition of power after the regime falls. And while many nations may not be apt to accept the moral argument, they should welcome the very simple and obvious financial and geo-political ones: a calm and stable Levant provides an opportunity for safe investment and expanding spheres of influence. Ideally, the fall of the Asad regime will create space for the emergence of a new Syria in which all parties are represented and a transition to a modern, stable, democratic state is realized. Such a transition would have to include guarantees of minority rights for non-Sunnis and the prevention of retribution against Alawites. Planning for such a phase is in fact rightly already underway, with early January media reports noting that the United Kingdom was planning to host a Conference of Experts which would bring together international officials and Syrian opposition members.[4]

The reality, of course, is that planning for regime transition by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), hard as its leaders are trying, is the political equivalent of fielding one half of an American football team. The political representatives are indeed coming together and making strategic plans. But for such preparation to be successful, those on the ground in Syria fighting and dying to overthrow the Asad regime will have to work with politicians working outside of Syria, many of whom dare not reenter the country until after Alawite rulers are overthrown. While large portions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and opposition have accepted the SNC as the legitimate political representative of the Syrian people, that does not mean they are willing to blindly accept the decisions made by the SNC on their behalf.

In early February, the leader of the SNC, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib (who has since announced his intention to step down from the position[5]), met with U.S. and Russian officials and reiterated his willingness to hold peace talks with Syrian government representatives (albeit with the conditions that 160,000 prisoners be released and Syrians abroad be permitted to renew their passports).[6] Almost immediately however, al-Khatib’s proposal was met with skepticism from those he presumably represents. A rebel military commander from Idlib Province gave a thinly veiled dissent to al-Khatib’s proposal noting, “I do trust Moaz al-Khatib, but I think there was too much pressure upon him to meet the Russians. We were forced to, after the world abandoned us.”[7]

Further complicating the matter is the fact that the FSA itself is an organization severely lacking in unity. FSA officers have described their distrust of fellow members, accusing “each other of looting,” for instance.[8] In addition, the FSA is far from the only opposition force fighting against the Asad regime in Syria.[9] Other rebels are in fact truly terrorists, such as the al-Qaida franchise, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), working in Syria under the moniker Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front) whose aim is to ultimately turn Syria into an Islamic state.[10], [11]

And so, while all the planning for a smooth transition is going on, the West should also prepare for a more likely scenario: that the fall of Asad will usher in a new period in which Syria will devolve into even greater violence and chaos that has the potential to last longer than the current conflict and spill over the Syrian borders, furthering regional unrest. It will be a period hallmarked  by sectarian clashes of Sunnis against Alawites, moderate Sunnis versus hard-line Sunnis, with Kurds, Christians, and Druze all embroiled and fighting for their own piece of territory, warring in the name of their religious and ethnic sects to “defend” their people.  

Sunnis and Alawites

Syria lies between two states which have set a precedent of sectarian violence. In Lebanon, the civil war which officially lasted from 1975 – 1990 – and which many would argue is not actually over – cost approximately 120,000 lives, and at its peak displaced upwards of 1,000,000 people as fighting raged amongst shifting alliances of Lebanon’s Shia, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and secular communities.[12], [13], [14] In Iraq, sectarian violence continues to this day, ten years after the U.S. originally went to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In January, a car bomb in Baghdad killed at least 17 people, likely aimed at undermining the Shia-led Iraqi government.[15] In early February, a blast was said to have killed at least 15 in Kirkuk, an area in which the Iraqi national and Kurdish regional governments have been sharing responsibility for security.[16] Both blasts, as well as countless others, are attributed to Sunni terrorists; as was a wave of January bomb attacks targeting Shia Muslim pilgrims which killed dozens.[17]  Last year sectarian battles reached the highest levels of government when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, accused the Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, of complicity to terrorism. Al-Hashemi fled Iraq, was charged with murder, convicted in abstentia, and sentenced to death.[18], [19] In turn, Lebanon and Iraq are not just Syria’s neighbors, they are present-day models of what the West is praying will not happen after the fall of Asad. This is particularly true given that Syria houses a greater diversity of ethnic and religious peoples than exists in Iraq, providing the opportunity for factionalism and sectarianism to be far greater in Syria.

For more than forty years, the rule of Syria by the Asad family placed Alawites in charge of a country which is approximately three-quarters Sunni.[20] Inherent religious tensions have long existed and the violence of the regime against the Sunni majority is not new. In 1982, Bashar al-Asad’s father, Hafiz, notoriously employed merciless tactics to quell a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt in Hama, which left tens of thousands of Syrians dead.[21] However, barring significant change in trajectory, the conflict between Alawites and Sunnis – whether aligned with the FSA or another militant Sunni group – is unlikely to be concluded with Bashar al-Asad in power; regardless of whether his exit is at the hands of the opposition or results from other Alawite leaders coalescing and mandating his exile to try and save a portion of the sect’s power.

While the international community would certainly prefer the end of Asad rule to correlate with the conclusion of fighting in Syria – a position which the political leaders of the SNC might be coaxed to accept if tempted by an appointment as temporary custodians of power in Syria – it will at best be a struggle to control the varying and often competing factions of Sunni militia leaders on the ground. To many Sunnis, Asad, hated as he may be personally, embodies only the tip of an Alawite regime which for years systematically and intentionally suppressed Sunnis throughout the country, creating lasting resentment in the community.[22], [23]

The feelings of resentment and hostility many in the Alawite community have toward Syrian Sunnis, and vice versa, has been exponentially exacerbated and largely turned to hatred in the last two years. Unsurprisingly, internationally Sunnis are claiming that the Syrian regime’s actions are not those of a group involved in a civil war, but of genocide. In late October 2012, Qatari Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassem al-Thani declared publicly that Asad was engaging in a “war of extermination.”[24]  Certainly, most Syrian Sunnis would agree with the declaration that what is now happening in Syria is genocide, increasing the likelihood that reprisals will come against Syrian minorities, perhaps even before Asad is gone. In December 2012, Adama Dieng, a United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide warned that Alawites and other Syrian minorities were at increased risk of facing “large-scale reprisal attacks” due to their presumed association with the government.[25]

The youngest generations of Syrian Sunnis are also learning to hate the Alawite sect. A September 2012 New York Times article quoted children regarding their feelings toward Alawites and the conflict. “‘I hate the Alawites and the Shiites….We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us,’” said one eleven year old. Another, alluding to the centuries long debate over whether or not non-Sunni sects are real Muslims, noted, “‘Sunnis are Muslims, Shiites and Alwaites are the ones who kill us.’”[26] Of course, none of these quotes predict these children or thousands similar to them will grow up to one day murder Alawites as revenge for the current crisis. However, the brutality of the regime’s actions appears to be leaving in its wake a legacy of hatred amongst even the youngest generations. Such a legacy threatens to extend sectarian tensions for decades to come as those same generations grow up.

Compounding the problem is that the chances of Sunni fighters declining to take broader revenge and agreeing not to prolong conflict with Alawites and other minority sects becomes less likely the more radicalized the current opposition elements become. As Jabhat al-Nusra becomes more prominent, moderate Sunni leaders are likely to struggle to prevent reprisal attacks carried out by followers and supporters of the group. Of course, it is this very notion which has the potential to precipitate increasing fissures and ultimately divisions between Sunni moderates and hardliners after the Asad regime falls.

Moderate Sunnis versus Violent Salafists

The number of opposition groups fighting on the ground in Syria now registers in the hundreds.[27] However, among those gaining the most attention and popularity, is Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the United States declared a terrorist organization and whose name is nothing more than an alias for AQI. In its declaration, the U.S. State Department noted that while Jabhat al-Nusra claimed to be just another opposition group fighting the Asad regime on behalf of the Sunni populace of Syria, it really was little more than an attempt by AQI to “hijack” the opposition’s cause for its own purposes. The declaration also stated that the group was responsible for more than 600 attacks in Syria since November 2011.[28]

When the November 2011 announcement was made by the United States, almost all Syrian Sunni external leaders rallied to defend Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Khatib noted, “We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision, but we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.”[29] For the moment, al-Khatib is probably correct; Jabhat al-Nusra’s current focus is squarely on the Asad regime, not on other Sunnis. However, that did not prevent the seeds of conflict between jihadists and more moderate opposition elements from forming, a schism which has exacerbated in recent weeks.

In April 2013, a potential split emerged between al-Qaida forces in Iraq and Syria. A leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq node announced it was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra, a merger which was denied by al-Nusra’s leader, Muhammad al-Joulani. However, as part of his denial, Joulani did “pledge allegiance” to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida.[30] This in turn created a new rupture in the alliance with other opposition forces, including some who fall under the Islamist banner. The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) which is billed as an “umbrella group” for various rebel organizations publicly criticized Jabhat al-Nusra noting, SILF’s  “…jihad against the sectarian regime… [was not done] for the sake of allegiance to a man here or another there,” likely a reference to Zawahiri.[31] At the same time, the more moderate FSA responded to the announcement by noting it did not support Jabhat al-Nusra’s “ideology” and would not coordinate with the group at the “command level” though the spokesman admitted the FSA had worked with al-Nusra on “certain operations.”[32]

As is the case with many terrorist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra seeks to influence the local populace in part by providing aid and food.[33] By February 2013, the group opened public headquarters throughout much of northern Syria, including in Idlib, Aleppo, and Ar Raqqa Provinces.[34] In turn, Jabhat al-Nusra’s growth as possibly the most capable fighting force in Syria continues. The group’s recent successes have increased its appeal and opposition fighters within the country continue to join the movement while external fighters flow into Syria to join the group.[35], [36] A December report from the United Nations noted that newly formed opposition groups are more likely to affiliate and attach themselves to Islamist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra than to the FSA or other less radical opposition groups.[37] One individual claiming to be Jabhat al-Nusra’s Emir for Homs Province boasted of recruiting individuals for the fight from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, France, and Britain.[38]

Even if the self-proclaimed emir was exaggerating, independent organizations verify the trend of Syrian fighters increasingly joining radicalized organizations. UN human rights investigators have noted that individuals from upwards of 29 different countries found their way into Syria to fight.[39] Personnel with the UK-based Observatory for Human Rights said in December 2012 that amongst the actual fighters on the ground, there is a shift within them toward “Islamicization” and those sorts of individuals “eventually adopt the more radical view.”[40] That sentiment was previously voiced by Paulo Pinheiro, the UN official responsible for leading the organization’s examination of the crisis in Syria, who said in September 2012 that foreign fighters who do join antigovernment forces, “‘tend to push anti-government fighters toward more radical positions.’”[41]

Meanwhile despite international concerns, Jabhat al-Nusra continues ingratiating itself into local Syrian society, including by acting at times as a check against rebels who are engaging in kidnappings and robberies aimed at raising money but terrorizing local communities.[42]  This, however, is happening against a backdrop of Jabhat al-Nusra’s desire to see Syria ultimately turned into an Islamic state ruled by strict Sharia.[43] According to a late January 2013 report, that desire became a reality in one eastern Syrian town in which, Salafi insurgents “…patrol the streets enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam.”[44]

In turn, there are signs of increasing tensions between the various opposition elements and Jabhat al-Nusra. One senior Aleppo-based rebel commander was quoted in mid-January in the British newspaper, The Guardian¸ as saying, “…[T]hey [Jabhat al-Nusra] began to reveal themselves. The situation is now very clear. They don’t want what we want.”[45] Another rebel commander voiced a similar but a grimmer sentiment for the future, noting, “We’ll fight them on day two after Asad falls.”[46]

In post-Asad Syria, the split between opposition forces will almost certainly be exacerbated and the conflict between them will turn increasingly violent – their long-term objectives are simply not compatible. This is not an unknown story, and in fact it is one that continues to play out in Iraq where the Sunni Awakening led tens of thousands of Sunni militia members to go from tenuous allies of al-Qaida to hated foes.[47] At least some non-Salafist opposition forces may well want a (Sunni) Muslim state in Syria, but they are unlikely to accept one which trades the shackles of an Asad-led aristocracy for the repression of an Islamist theocracy.   

The Kurds, Christians, and Druze

While most of the focus surrounding opposition to the Asad regime is between Sunnis and Alawites, minority groups in Syria have significant reasons to be concerned about their long-term security in the country.  Portions of the fragmented Syrian Kurdish population are already engaging in the conflict believing it necessary to defend what they view as their territory.  The Christians, long tied to the Asad regime, have little capacity to protect and defend themselves, a concern which is likely increasing at a time when the Asad regime is struggling to retain control. And the Druze remain as they are in Lebanon, Israel, and elsewhere, a predominantly insular population whose concern is less about the state they live in than the welfare of their own community. All of these groups are facing the tumult of war in Syria now and will have major challenges to overcome post-Asad, especially if the regime is replaced by a government committed to creating an Islamic state.

The Kurds

Syrian Kurds find themselves in a tenuous position in which the bloc is probably, first and foremost, loyal to themselves but nevertheless still a community complicated by internal fissures. For that reason, reporting on Kurdish alliances is at times contradictory. There are reports that note some Kurds are trying to stay neutral in the war, [48],[49] while other information indicates Kurds continue to support the Asad regime.[50] All of this follows a backdrop of increased tensions since mid-November 2012 when conflict sparked between Kurds and elements of probably the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra fighting together in the Syrian-Turkish border town of Ras-al-Ain. The conflict began when anti-Asad forces attacked regime soldiers in the town. The anti-Asad forces took control of the town but Kurds living there asked the rebel forces to leave, fearing reprisals from the Asad regime. The anti-Asad forces refused and a battle ensued leaving 5 Kurds and 18 rebels dead. [51], [52]

Fighting continued in the area for weeks and could easily flare up again though media outlets reported that the Kurds and the anti-Asad forces signed a ceasefire agreement in mid-February.[53], [54] At the same time, there are reports of Kurds aligning with and even formally joining the FSA.[55] However, none of this prevented distrust of the Kurds by some Sunni groups, including other segments of the FSA. One FSA commander denounced the Syrian Kurdish community for not formally joining their movement in opposition to the regime. And jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, view the Kurds as infidels.[56]

At the same time, despite facing pressure from a number of different groups in Syria, fissures within the Syrian Kurdish community itself are abundant. The rivalry between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest political group in the country, which is backed by the outlawed Turkish militant group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KGK), and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a political alliance of Kurdish political parties backed by the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, shows no signs of abating.[57], [58] The PYD rejects working with the mainstream Syrian opposition, yet at least some of the KNC parties are willing to work with the FSA.[59]

All of this leaves the Kurdish community in a tenuous position regarding their fate after the fall of the regime, with at least some Kurds and Arabs in a position to have a cold truce, especially in the northeastern part of Syria, a Kurdish stronghold which happens to hold a sizeable portion of Syria’s “limited” oil reserves.[60] Simultaneously, Kurds may find themselves battling Sunni militias in other parts of the country where Kurds have a presence, such as in the Aleppo area.[61] If those battles extend for any period of time, it may compel the Kurds who were originally in a cold truce ensconced in northeastern Syria to take up arms in defense of their brothers, opening up yet another conflict in post-Asad Syria.

The Christians

The Christian community of Syria has long favored the Asad regime, viewing it as a guarantor of minority rights for a group which makes up approximately 10% of the Syrian population.[62], [63] As the regime struggles however, there is increasing fear by Christians of potential persecution after Asad is no longer around. The specter of fear will rise if the regime is replaced by a government dominated by Sunni groups akin to the Salafist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is unlikely to offer the same protections and potential for upward societal mobility and may instead relegate Christians to second-class citizens.[64]

Fearing present and future violence, many of those Christians who can afford the cost of leaving Syria are doing so and seeking refuge elsewhere. Lebanon is a popular destination undoubtedly in part due to the convenience of being next door and having a sizeable Christian population.[65] UN estimates currently place a little over 300,000 Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon, but local officials have indicated the numbers are probably closer to 400,000. Fear of violence is a reality with multiple reports of Islamic extremists kidnapping Christians within Syria and holding them for ransom, or in some cases torturing and killing them. [66],[67],[68]

Christians leaving Syria are likely to find a difficult road ahead wherever they are refugees. In Turkey, they are likely to face challenges being both Arab and Christian.[69] In Lebanon they may find a more hospitable welcoming but could easily find themselves living through a civil war in Lebanon in the not-too-distant future. In other countries, their status as refugees is likely to cause all sorts of issues from integrating into society to gaining work authorization permits.  And for those Christians who stay in Syria, their future may be similar to that of the Kurds – but with far less protection and capabilities to defend themselves.

A moderate Islamic regime which takes power may provide for minority rights and seek to work with the remaining Christian community. A more hard-line Islamist regime that takes control is less likely to be so hospitable. Such a regime is almost certain to tolerate a more excessive level of violence and bloodshed against Christians, even perhaps while publicly declaring to the international community how hard it is working to prevent atrocities. Christians who remain under such a regime are likely to find themselves in peril, facing retaliatory killings for supporting the Asad regime and for the simple fact of being Christians in a now-Sunni Muslim-dominated country.

The Druze

The Syrian Druze community, which has only approximately 700,000 people living in Syria, like the Syrian Christians is divided, with some members of the community staying neutral while a portion continues to quietly support the regime and others are joining the rebel’s cause.[70] The Druze community, located predominantly in the southwest of the country, is becoming more involved with opposition fighters since late 2012. In mid-January, Druze fighters united with rebels in an offensive attack against a radar base in Sweida Province.[71] And reports indicate that there is now an opposition unit, made up primarily of Druze fighters, which is fighting in the Damascus suburbs.[72]

The Druze, similar to both the Kurds and Christians, are parts of larger communities across the Levant. The impact of the Syrian Druze divide has the potential to impact politics outside the country. In Lebanon, the iconic Druze political leader, Walid Jumblatt, warned against Syrian Druze taking up arms to support the Syrian regime and instead called for the community to join the “revolution.”[73] Jumblatt, who managed to survive the quickly shifting loyalties and coalitions that dot Lebanese political history in the last few decades, leads a political party which – for the moment – sits in coalition as part of the Lebanese government with Hizballah, which is actively supporting the Asad regime.[74], [75], [76], [77] At the same time, the leadership of the Lebanese Democratic Party which is dominated by but not officially a Druze party, expressed the exact opposite sentiment, reaffirming the support of the Druze people to Asad.[78]

Presuming the situation on the ground in Syria continues to deteriorate, internal Druze divisions may continue to grow. So, too, may Druze divisions in neighboring Lebanon. Increased sectarianism and violence against minority communities in Syria are already spilling over the border.[79]  If Asad is ousted, then Hizballah is likely to do whatever is necessary to ensure that their interests in Syria are protected in the short term. If the actions Hizballah takes to protect their interests in post-Asad Syria conflicts with any support being given by Jumblatt to Syrian Druze aligned with the opposition, it could well lead to increased violence between Druze and Shia groups in Lebanon. At the same time in Syria, the threat moderate Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians may face from Islamists will likely be directed at the Syrian Druze community as well.


The violence in Syria is devastating with conflicts flaring between Alawites loyal to the regime and Sunni oppositionists as well as between moderate Sunnis and Salafists, with Kurds battling for their own security, and Christians and Druze facing increased unrest in their communities. However, Asad’s death or removal from power is likely to open a new, more violent period in Syria. The battle for power and control promises to affect all regions of the country and will almost certainly become more sectarian in nature.

While comparisons to Iraq will inevitably be the common analogy, the potential regional implications of Syrian ethno-sectarian violence are far worse. As the violence grows, the question will almost certainly be whether it can be contained within Syria’s borders. The chances of it spilling over to Lebanon will be high and the spillover need not actually be physical. Communities in Lebanon are similar to those in Syria and it may be enough for financial and other support flowing from Lebanon to Syria to spark violence in Lebanon. Lebanon spent a decade and a half in civil war and – despite its conclusion 23 years ago – rarely does much time pass without the assassination of a political official or conflict between religious groups leading to a violent flare-up.

While Lebanon is the most likely candidate for spillover violence, increased strife in Iraqi Kurdish areas or along the Syrian-Jordanian border could also come to pass. Increased regional strife is almost certainly a concern in Jerusalem and any overflow of violence into the Golan Heights could threaten to result in an Israeli kinetic response. Multiple occasions of violence in the Golan may compel Israel to engage more fully, resulting in a regional war without sufficient clarity as to alliances, loyalties, or end goals of various sects or ethnic groups.

With over 70,000 already dead in Syria, it is hard to imagine the violence getting worse. With the fall of the regime, that number may multiply as Syria’s ethno-sectarian conflict begins in earnest.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense or any U.S. Government agency.

[1] CNN, Syria death toll probably at 70,000, U.N. human rights official says, <>, accessed April 12, 2013

[2]UNHCR Syria, <>, accessed February 27, 2013

[3] CNN, Opposition: March deadliest month in Syrian civil war, <>, accessed April 12, 2013

[4] BBC, Britain Hosts Conference of Experts <>, accessed January 8, 2013

[5] The Irish Times, Vacuum at the top of Syrian opposition as Moaz al-Khatib reaffirms resignation,, accessed April 24, 2013

[6] New York Times, Syrian Opposition Leader Says He’s Open to Talks, With Conditions, <>, accessed April 12, 2013

[7] New York Times, Syrian Opposition Leader Confers With U.S. and Russia, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[8] BBC, Syria: Islamist Nusra Front Gives BBC exclusive interview BBC, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[9] Holliday Joseph, Meddle East Security Report 3: Syria’s Armed Opposition, March 2012. Institute For the Study of War. Available at: <>

[10] U.S. Department of State, Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an Alias for al-Qa’ida in Iraq,>, accessed April 15, 2013

[11] Time Magazine, Syria: Interview with Official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist Militia Group, <>, accessed  April 15, 2013

[12] The Daily Star, Lebanese War memories die hard, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[13] United Nations, UNHRC Implementation of General Assembly Resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006 Entitled “Human Rights Council” <>, accessed March 14, 2013

[14] United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 – Lebanon, 1 January 1999, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[15] Reuters, Two blasts, suicide attack kill 17 in Baghdad, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[16] BBC, Iraq rocked by suicide car bomb, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[17] The Guardian, Wave of Iraq car bombs targets Shia Muslim Pilgrims,  <>, access April 15, 2013

[18] The Guardian, Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi attacks ‘unjust’ verdict in terror trial, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[19] The Economist, Shia-Sunni strife: The Sword and the word, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[20] CIA World Factbook, Syria, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[21] The Guardian, From The Archive – 1982: Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad crushes rebellion in Hama, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[22] The Economist, In a Pickle: Lebanon’s Shia leaders are not sure what to do about Syria, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[23] Foreign Affairs, Assad Family Values, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[24] Y Net News, Qatar PM: Syria war amounts to genocide, <,7340,L-4298783,00.html>, accessed April 15, 2013

[25] United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, 20 December Statement on Syria, < 20 December Statement on Syria – ENGLISH.pdf>, accessed April 15, 2013

[26] New York Times, Syrian Children Offer Glimpse of a Future of Reprisals,   <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[27] International Business Times, Divided, We Fight: A Primer On Syrian Opposition Groups,  <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[28] U/.S. Department of State, Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an Alias for al-Qa’ida in Iraq, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[29] Voice of America, Syria Opposition Protests Terrorist Branding of Jabhat al-Nusra by U.S. <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[30] CNN, Syrian jihad group pledges allegiance to al Qaeda, denies merger, <>, accessed April 12, 2013

[31] The Daily Star, Islamist Syrian rebels slam Nusra Front over Al-Qaeda allegiance pledge, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[32] BBC, Syria crisis: Al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[33] The Guardian, Syria crisis: al-Qaida fighters revealing their true colours, rebels say  <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[34] Time Magazine, Syrian Rebels Close in on Aleppo Airport,  <>, accessed February 27, 2013

[35] The Independent, Foreign fighters fuel the sectarian flames in Syria, <>, accessed March 16, 2013

[36] Al Arabiya, Syrian conflict mobilizes hundreds of fighters from Europe: study, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[37] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Periodic Update December 2012,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[38] The Telegraph, Inside Jabhat al-Nusra – the most extreme wing of Syria’s struggle, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[39] The Independent, Foreign fighters fuel the sectarian flames in Syria,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[40] Voice of America, Islamists Gaining Ground in Syria,<>, accessed April 16, 2013

[41] The Boston Globe, Syrian violence taking worst toll on civilians, report says, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[42] Toronto Star, The Star in Syria: Factions emerge among rebel fighters, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[43] BBC, Syria: Islamist Nusra Front Gives BBC exclusive interview BBC,>, accessed April 15, 2013

[44] Reuters, Eastern Syrian town lives under al Qaeda rules, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[45] The Guardian, Syria crisis: al-Qaida fighters revealing their true colours, rebels say,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[46] Ibid.

[47] New York Times, U.S. Leaving Iraqi Comrades-in-Arms in Limbo,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[48] Washington Post, In Syria, role of Kurds divides opposition, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[49] France 24, Are Syrian Kurds putting their support behind Bashar al=Assad?, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[50] New York Times, Defying Common View, Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[51] New York Times, Syria’s Kurds Try to Balance Security and Alliances, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[52] The Economist, Turkey, Syria and the Kurds: A third party joins the fray, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[53] The Guardian, Syria’s Kurds face uncertain future if Assad falls, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[54] Reuters, Kurdish militia sign ceasefire with Syrian rebels, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[55] New York Times, Defying Common View, Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[56] The Guardian, Syria’s Kurds face uncertain future if Assad falls, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[57] Ibid.

[58] New York Times, Syria’s Kurds Try to Balance Security and Alliances, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[59] Ibid.

[60] Washington Post, Syria’s Kurds prepare for life after Assad, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[61] New York Times, Defying Common View, Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad,  <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[62] Fox News, Syrian Christians flee civil war, say they face a bleak future if Assad regime falls,  < -future-if-assad-regime-falls>, accessed April 16, 2013

[63] CIA World Factbook, Syria, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[64] The Wall Street Journal, Can Syria’s Christians Survive, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[65] CBS News, Christians, threatened by Syrian war, flee to Lebanon, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[66] Christian Post, Christians in Syria Being Targeted for Kidnapping by Islamic Extremists, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[67] Daily Mail, Syria rebels ‘beheaded a Christian and fed him to the dogs’ as fears grow over Islamist atrocities, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[68] The Independent, The plight of Syria’s Christians: ‘We left Homs because they were trying to kill us,’ <>, accessed April 16, 2013>, accessed April 16, 2013

[69] Christian Post, Christians in Syria Being Targeted for Kidnapping by Islamic Extremists, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[70] Yahoo News, Syria’s Druze minority shifting its support to opposition: Report, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[71] Washington Post, Syria’s Druze minority is shifting its support to the opposition, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[72] Ibid.

[73] The Daily Star, PSP leader warns Druze in Syria against joining paramilitary force, < axzz2Qe3mmHUa>, accessed April 16, 2013

[74] Government of Lebanon,>, accessed April 16, 2013

[75] CIA World Factbook, Syria, <>, accessed April 15, 2013

[76] Y Net News, Rebels: 1,000 Hezbollah fighters invaded Syria, <,7340,L-4346099,00.html>, accessed April 16, 2013

[77] The Daily Star, Two Hezbollah members, 12 rebels killed in Syria battles, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[78] Al Monitor, Lebanese Druze Leaders Divided on Syria, <>, accessed April 16, 2013

[79] Bloomberg Businessweek, Syrian civil war spills over into Lebanon <>, accessed April 16, 2013


About the Author(s)

Jonathan Panikoff is a Middle East analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He is currently responsible for briefing and providing analysis on Levant-related matters to senior policy-makers throughout the Defense Department and U.S. Government. He received both his J.D. and M.A. – International Relations, from Syracuse University’s College of Law and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, respectively.


Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 05/24/2013 - 5:29pm

In reply to by miked

Mike D.,
The blog by Mr. Moore has its strong points. Yet I must confess that ad hominem attacks in the first sentence quickly excite my skepticism. The critique appears to be too narrow in focus successfully to refute Mr Panikoff's panoramic prognosis which intelligently summarizes the current catastrophe and the humanitarian challenges ahead. One of my favorite foreign policy theorists is Lincoln P. Bloomfield. Were I to quote him, however, I hope that I would avoid indicting of pre-meditated idiocy the 99% of the world not privileged to read Dr Bloomfield.

A different view offered by W. Moore on Political Violence at a Glance:

Did Charles Tilly Labor in Vain?

By Will H. Moore

Last week Jonathan Panikoff posted a stream of clap-trap and nonsense at Small Wars Journal to support his headline that, in Syria, “The True Chaos Will Begin After the Fall of the Regime.”


Sat, 05/11/2013 - 8:29pm

I am very surprised that you felt confident enough to write this excellent piece given your place of employment. After all, according to the script that led us to feed the insurgency in the first place (i.e., looking away while others gave lethal aid at best), isn't Syria just a natural pro-US secular democracy with friendly relations with Israel just waiting to be born?

Excellent work.


Sun, 05/12/2013 - 10:39am

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

I really like your idea of an intervention of troops from Islamic nations. The two that you mention have superb militaries that know counterinsurgency - that's what will be needed to basically quell and "opposition" that has been taken over by the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra, many, if not most, of whom are not even Syrian. And that's regardless of what happens to Assad.

As for the US, it truly pains me to say this as an American, but I think we (and the British, French, and Turks) need to do our best to have someone else take up the slack. Quite frankly, the US has zero credibility left in this region.

Ned McDonnell III

Tue, 05/07/2013 - 3:36pm


A carefully crafted, well researched and, needless to say, very sobering essay. Thank you for a comprehensive overview. After reading this article, I am somewhat surprised that this conflict has not occurred sooner. In trying to think of what, if anything, the U.S. should do beyond leading the way with much-needed humanitarian aid, I despair of any constructive course being open.

Perhaps any U.S. intervention should focus on trying to contain the conflict. In any case, the onus of direct military intervention into Syria should fall on the French and the British for their colonialism fabricated Syria by super-imposing a nation-state model on a region perhaps not so well suited to it. U.S. intervention militarily could manifest in a different manner, outside of that tragic slaughterhouse.

This effort might be carried out by dispatching Special Forces to the refugee communities in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to seek to avoid their radicalization-via-intimidation imposed by AQI elements. These troops could protect supply lines for humanitarian aid while training a police force for these areas in the near-term, eventually to become a core of the Syrian Police in the longer-term.

Diplomatically, the U.S. et al. might try negotiate a peaceful intervention of troops from Islamic nations, preferably from outside of the region (e.g. Indonesia, Malaysia et al.), to enter into Syria. Perhaps the Special Forces dispatched to the neighbouring countries could escort these peace-keepers to make sure they get into the cities safley.

Any U.S. intervention into Syria herself would have to be for a set limit of, say, two or three months (or the shortest practical deployment to accomplish limited ends). Staying beyond a tightly circumscribed mandate might create the impression of the U.S. taking sides, placing these soldiers at risk of another truck-bomb attack similar in shock and magnitude to that in Beirut almost thrirty years ago.

Thank you again and yours very perlexèdly,
Edward McDonnell III, CFA.