The Winners and Losers of Syria's Civil War

And how the United States can still come out ahead.

Ask any intelligence analyst, policy planner, or public policy wonk -- it's really hard to see trees, the forest, or anything else for that matter when you're in the eye of the hurricane.

We're already deep into Last Chance 3.0 for Bashar al-Assad's regime, but the arc of its demise is still likely to take more twists and turns before the story ends. Most difficult to divine -- and upon which so much of the future hinges -- is who or what will emerge to rule in Damascus when the dust finally settles. Indeed, the bulk of the so-called silent majority of Syrians -- Sunnis and Alawites alike responsible for Assad's longevity -- have not been spoken for.

Still, here's a preliminary scorecard of who is likely to come out on top, ahead, behind, or underground.

Biggest Losers

1. Bashar and the Assads: Bashar's DNA doomed him. Forget the trope of the modern man who was going to reform Syria. There was no way that growing up in a family whose nurture/nature meld was a cross between the Sopranos and the Corleones could have turned out any other way. Whether he's shot crawling out of drainpipe like Qaddafi (unlikely), tried like Milosevic in the Hague (more unlikely), spends his life living in a dacha on the Moskva (getting warmer), or manages for a time to seek refuge in Alawistan, the end of the line is approaching. In this region, the only regimes that can be handed down generation after generation are the authoritarian kingly dynasties, never the brittle republics run by secular strongmen. Bashar is done; stick a fork in him. In the respect and legacy department, he's going to make Rodney Dangerfield look good.

2. Alawites: Think post-Saddam Iraq without the American intervention. Another empowered minority (12-13 percent of the population) is about to become an aggrieved minority. Reconciliation and inclusiveness would be great in the new Syria. Sadly, there will be a lot of pressure to look back not forward, to settle scores, and to get even. With enough outside help, Syria may be lucky enough to avoid the worst kind of sectarian score-settling. This would likely require an international stabilization force, a great deal of money, and an enlightened policy on the part of big brother Arabs, particularly the Saudis and the Turks. Still, the biggest losers will be Alawites who benefitted from the regime's largess and who are likely to end up poorer and less secure as the rising Sunnis divide the pie amongst themselves. Syria is in for an abrupt redistribution of economic and political power. And no one will feel this more forcefully than the Alawites, particularly if the Baath Party is disbanded or criminalized and Alawite military elites are prosecuted or stripped of command.

3. Christians: This won't be a happy outcome for Christians, either. Assad's departure could remove two important safeguards for Syria's Christian community (roughly 10 percent of the population). First, as long as they remained in power, Alawites had a stake in legitimizing their own minority status by protecting fellow minorities. Second, the stability -- false as it was -- that the Assads guaranteed made minority status fairly secure as long as such groups did not challenge the regime.

As the Syrian system collapses, the only certainty is that Sunnis will dominate the new order. And if the state secularism that the Assads promoted evaporates, the Christians, particularly those who have cooperated closely with the regime, could find themselves increasingly marginalized in a more traditionally Sunni land.

4. Hezbollah: Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanon's Hezbollah, has been whistling past the graveyard lately in his support for Assad. Hezbollah will survive Assad's fall -- the organization is an authentic and dominant player in Lebanese politics, not some kind of remote-controlled proxy -- but one of its two strongest patrons is about to be replaced by a Sunni (and most likely hostile) regime. To be sure, Iran is the group's more important partner. But Syria -- even while there were tensions with Hezbollah over the years -- has been a faithful guarantor of weapons, intelligence, and muscle inside Lebanon. It has also provided some, though not much, deterrence against Israel. With Syria offline, it remains an open question whether Hezbollah could mount as forceful a response to external aggression -- from Iran, Israel, or the United States -- as it could have in the past.

5. Iran: The Iranians will survive this one too, but they will lose a strategic card. The Iranian-Syrian alliance has lasted for almost 40 years because it is mutually beneficial and because the two are not ideological competitors. The fall of Assad will upset this balance. If a Saudi Arabian-backed Sunni regime emerges in Damascus, Iran will fear being encircled and the "Shiite crescent" will be much less threatening. Iran's window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict will also close. All of these developments will only augment Iran's sense of insecurity and vulnerability. It may well lead to an even more determined effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

6. Iraq: The Shiite government of Nuri al-Maliki also has reason to fear Assad's ouster -- and it is likely that Iraqi-Syrian ties will be further strained. Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds will feel empowered by the rise of their brethren across the border in Syria and they will likely try to use that momentum to improve their own status at home. Syrian Kurds have already been coordinating with those in Iraq and taking refuge there as well. Should Kurds carve out their own autonomous entity within Syria, tensions will inevitably mount with both Iraq and Turkey.

7. Russia: Regardless of what happens in Syria, Russia will no longer enjoy the privileged position it once did. Syrians will not forget Moscow's support for the Assads, which included military and financial aid, and the emergence of a Sunni regime -- of whatever stripe -- will be at odds with Vladimir Putin's own aversion to Saudi-backed Islamists in Chechnya and the north Caucasus. If Assad does, in fact, try to create an Alawite statelet, and the Russians try to back it, matters will only get worse for Moscow. Among the great powers, there are no heroes in the Syrian saga -- that goes for the United States, too. But the Russians will occupy a place of pride in the rogues' gallery, together with Iran.

Big Winners: Are There Any?

Right now, it's much easier to identify the losers in the Syrian story than the winners. Events over the past 18 months seem to have shaped the fate of the unlucky with more certainty than that of the putative winners. I'd like to put the Syrian people at the top of the winner's list. After all, a brutal, thuggish, extractive regime is coming down and that shouldn't be a bad thing.

If the arc is long enough, Syria will be in for better days. Syrian civil society has shown a remarkable degree of resilience, willingness to cooperate, and ability to mobilize in the face of ongoing horrors. Still, should post-Assad Syria be dominated by an exclusivist Sunni regime influenced even to a small degree by fundamentalist leanings and without the will or capacity to accommodate the needs of a full third of Syria's people, the story could be much darker.

What we have right now is a group of wannabe winners, most with serious asterisks. Indeed, there's not yet a slam-dunk, jackpot winner among them.

1. Lebanon: The good news is that the end of the Assads could mean a lifting of the jackboot that has been on Lebanon's throat for a very long time now. Even with the formal withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus continued to meddle in Lebanese politics through its proxies, often with deadly effect. The fall of the Assads will also weaken Hezbollah.

The bad news is that an unstable Syria will continue to spill over into Lebanon, potentially stirring the pot of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Indeed, Syria's traditional fear that Lebanon will become a breeding ground for coup plotting and conspiring with the Israelis will only increase. Ultimately, much will turn on whether or not Lebanon can take advantage of its newfound maneuvering space and forge more unity within its own ranks.

2. The Kurds: Syria's ethnic minorities may fare better than its religious ones. Syria's Kurds (roughly 9 percent of the population) are Sunnis and will be looking for increased recognition and perhaps autonomy. If cooler heads prevail in Turkey and among the Syrian opposition -- both of whom so far oppose that goal -- some kind of compromise might be reached. If not, the Kurds who now dominate much of Syria's border with Turkey will be a source of tension and conflict within Syria and with Turkey, forging ties with Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly known as the PKK. It wouldn't take much imagination to envision Turkish incursions into Syria to hit Kurdish separatists and break up cooperation between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.

3. Israel: The good news for the Israelis is that Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened by Assad's fall. The bad news is that like so much of the Arab Spring/ Winter, the impending transition brings with it enormous uncertainty. What will happen to the 1974 disengagement agreement, which has made the Golan Heights the quietest space in the Middle East? What about Syria's chemical-weapons stockpiles, the largest in the region? What about foreign jihadists or the character of the new Syrian government? Will Syria revert back to the kind of instability that plagued the country before the Assads came to power? Will its government be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood as in Egypt? If Iran feels encircled by hostile Sunnis, how acutely will the Israelis perceive the same challenge?

4. Turkey: Ankara is going to have to get used to the new Syria after enjoying a remarkably positive run with the Assads. Depending on the character of the Sunni government in Damascus, the Turks -- as the region's leading non-Arab Sunni power -- could become quite close to the new Syrian government, enhancing both their political and economic influence. Yet cooperation is far from a foregone conclusion. The Kurdish problem, as well as tensions between Turkish Sunnis and their own Alevis (the Turkish name for Alawites, who make up 15 percent of the population), could spark serious tensions and even violence.

5. Saudi Arabia: For the Saudis, the fall of the Assads carries real advantages if they can influence the new Sunni regime that emerges. The visit of Manaf Tlass -- the son of the former Sunni minister of defense -- to Saudi Arabia was an intriguing indication of what the Saudis may be thinking. Whether an establishment regime figure like Tlass would be acceptable to Free Syrian Army elements on the ground is another matter. But Syria will need friendly, rich Arabs. For Riyadh, Syria has been part of the great game of blocking Iranian influence. And if they don't overplay their Sunni cards -- and encourage the new government in Damascus to be inclusive with Alawites and Christians -- the Saudis might actually steal a march on Tehran.

6. The United States: Unlike the other authoritarian regimes it dealt with over the years, the United States never got much out of the Assads in matters of peacemaking or strategic advantage. A brutally repressive regime without much redemptive quality is on its way out -- and good riddance. For now, the biggest gain will be a weakening of Iran. But there could be a downside as well if Tehran becomes even more determined to push ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Assuming America doesn't intervene militarily, some ground will also have been lost among Syrians who believe it should have done something. But this can be recouped if Washington can help coordinate the international effort to address Syria's post-Assad needs.

The United States is an inherently status quo power, but it has values and interests that also compel it to support change. Its reaction to so much of the so-called Arab Spring reflects that ambivalence and will continue to do so in the future; it will also limit American influence in Syria. Should a Sunni regime emerge that is Islamist in character or just unstable, Washington will have an adequately tough time finding its balance. Just look at Egypt, where the U.S. has a strong relationship with the military and a thirty-year-old aid program, and still not much leverage. In Syria, it has almost no advantages. Nor does Washington have the resources to lead a multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. Indeed, the only way Washington can possibly play a major role is if Syria follows Egypt and Jordan and signs a peace treaty with Israel. But the odds of this happening are slim to none.

The United States has much to lose if Syria devolves into sectarian conflict or worse, fragments. It has much to gain if it doesn't. But we need to be real here: Despite all the planning and working groups, Washington doesn't have much influence to shape the outcome either way. And let's face it: The struggle for Syria is going to be long and painful. If Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya -- despite all of their failings and dysfunction -- represent the best of what we can expect, Syria could easily come to represent the worst. And if that comes to pass, the Syrian story will end badly for everyone.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Why Syria's Rebels Can't Have It All

Don't listen to pundits who want to drag America into another Middle East quagmire. The Obama administration's strategy in Syria is already working.

Here we go again.

That strange coalition of neocons and liberal interventionists is clamoring once more for a more muscular U.S. approach to Syria. And unsurprisingly, they're searching for culprits in the endless debate of "who lost Syria?"

Don't believe any of it. The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria -- the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow -- are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns.

The "we need to do more" chorus has intensified in light of the dramatic and tragic events in Aleppo, where the Syrian army once again appears to be laying waste to a great city in the hope of rooting out its opponents. Last week, the Washington Post called yet again for a series of steps -- arming the opposition and contingency planning for no-fly zones -- without any analysis of whether such measures would appreciably affect the situation on the ground, let alone any consideration of what the costs might be if they didn't work.

The death dance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime has been a long, complex affair, and it's likely to go on for a while longer. It might even involve Assad retreating to an Alawite enclave along Syria's northwest coast, where he could hold out against his opponents for some time. In the meantime, the conflict between a murderous regime and an opposition that won't quit -- but can't yet win -- goes on.

The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There's no single force on the ground -- or constellation of outside powers -- that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less. Sure, U.S. President Barack Obama could take down the Assads by force -- but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule? That's the last thing America needs.

Still, some seem determined already to lay the blame for the Syrian mess at America's doorstep. The Syrian crisis would never have come to this had the United States not been so passive, the Wall Street Journal opined last week. In not leading a coalition of the willing, the country has produced a mess that will be harder to clean up.

The arrogance of the argument is as breathtaking as it is reckless. The notion that the United States could ever have fixed Syria is the same twisted logic that produced the Iraq debacle. It also flies in the face of the spirit of self-reliance that has made the popular revolts in the Arab world so genuine and authentic. If the so-called Arab Spring does in fact produce better governance, it will be precisely because the United States kept its distance and citizens took responsibility for their political future. It is a cruel irony that the one country where America intervened heavily -- Iraq -- is the one in which an Arab strongman still acts in arbitrary and heavy-handed fashion.

As for assembling a coalition of the willing, the bloom is off the rose on that idea. Some still believe that a coalition can be assembled to save the day by supplying weapons and air cover to any opposition group that would sign a kind of good-behavior agreement. Who all would be in this bunch, and what precisely would they be willing to do? What we've witnessed in the past half-year is a coalition of the unwilling, the opposed, and the vacillating. No amount of American leadership would have pushed the Europeans to consider risky military options, particularly after the NATO-led Libya operation demonstrated how stretched their resources were. And forget Russian help -- the Kremlin seems willing to defend Assad to the last drop of Syrian blood.

As for Turkey, on which the pro-intervention crowd is banking much of its hopes, there is a reason Ankara has been all bark but no bite. Turkey will use military force if it sees Kurdish militants using the power vacuum in Syria to carve out a base, but it hasn't pushed aggressively for a "safe zone" in Syrian territory because of its own public's wariness of war and complications with Iran and Russia. Remember Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "zero problems" policy? He wants to be loved by everybody.

Being cautious on Syria is still the best approach for the Obama administration, and here's why.

It's working.

The Assads are going down, though not nearly as quickly as one might have hoped. The opposition has now put both Damascus and Aleppo in play, testing the Syrian military's control of the country's two major cities. The Assads' already small circle of key advisors has been reduced as a result of the July 18 bombing in Damascus that killed four top security officials. A grave sense of vulnerability and pervasive suspicions over whom to trust will continue to take its toll on the rest of the family's circle. The regime's counter-crackdown, meanwhile, is only deepening the rebels' determination to resist and enlarging its pool of recruits. Meanwhile, the Syrian army continues to become fatigued and demoralized by endless guerrilla warfare against an enemy that appears to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

This process will not be quick or painless. But nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures -- more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, safe havens -- will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to "do something" isn't a strategy; it's a wing and a prayer. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, it's just not good enough to pass the threshold for putting American lives, money, and credibility on the line.

Keep your powder dry.

A real coalition of the willing will indeed be required to mend Syria's wounds -- but only after the main battle to defeat the Assads has concluded. An international monitoring and stabilization force could preempt civil war and create the basis for a political transition. International donors conferences will have to be launched to raise the billions of dollars that will be required to get Syria moving economically and to deal with the broken bodies and minds left in the wake of the violence and terror. These are steps that the United States -- along with the rest of the international community -- can embark upon that will not force it to take sides or plunge ahead with half-baked intervention schemes. And it is this second struggle for Syria that is worth the multilateral effort.

America can't control the world.

International intervention still might come, driven by the pressure of events. It could be prompted by a large-scale massacre by the regime, in which thousands are killed in a single action, or by the prospect of Assad's loss of control of his chemical weapons stockpile. But for now, America's current approach will have to do, enhanced as necessary to accommodate the swelling refugee flows into Syria's neighbors.

It should come as no surprise to observers that Syria has come to this. There was no way the Assads were going down without a brutal, bloody fight and a messy, complex transition. And the odds that the post-Assad era will go as smoothly (relatively speaking) as those in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Yemen are slim to none.

But the idea that the United States -- currently in the grips of an economic crisis, already strained militarily by a decade of costly foreign wars, and in the middle of an election season -- would be able to make that transition substantially easier strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. After the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions of dollars expended, only a willfully delusional observer would argue that the American adventures in those countries were worth the price the United States paid. Nor should those countries' current conditions provide inspiration for additional military expeditions to fix yet another foreign land.

Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a very wise man whose career has been spent trying to make his government's unwise policies work, said it best in his exit interview with the New York Times. We should heed his three lessons: Remember the laws of unintended consequences; recognize the limits of U.S. capacity; and understand that a foreign power's exit from a conflict can be as dangerous for the country as the original conflict.

Syria today is a mess -- but it's a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can't control the world. It's time the country focus primarily on fixing its own broken house, instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else's.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images