The only honest answer to the question of what will happen in Syria is: No one knows. After an eight-month-long battle in which more than 3500 people have been killed, there’s no telling who will be ruling Syria when the dust settles, or even when the dust will settle. A regime victory is quite possible—perhaps most likely—and its overthrow might–but not necessarily–bring an Islamist regime.
But what do we know about Syria? Here’s a guide.
1. Don’t overrate Iran’s role. Despite wild rumors, the Syrian regime doesn’t need Iranians to help it repress the people. Iran is important as a source of financing for the government, but this is President Bashar al-Asad’s battle to win or lose. Tehran is definitely going to be a secondary factor.
2. Syria’s other ally is Hizballah, but the killing of so many Sunni Muslims, including Muslim Brotherhood people, has lost it Hamas. There is a sort of Sunni-Shia version of the Spanish Civil War going on now. But when it comes to the radical and Islamist forces on both sides there’s no good guy.
3. And Turkey isn’t the good guy. The Turkish Islamist regime isn’t motivated by some love of democracy in opposing the Syrian regime. The Ankara government wants a fellow Sunni Islamist dictatorship in Damascus, preferably under its influence. In this situation, Turkey is just as bad as Iran.
4. Will the two sides make a deal? No, this is a war to the death. The regime cannot make a deal and yield power because the elite would lose everything it has. Moreover, the government elite would face death, exile, or long-term imprisonment if it loses. Similarly, the dominant Alawite community and large portions of the Christian one (together roughly 25 percent of the population) risks massacre if the government falls.
5 . Will the army bring down the regime or change sides? No, see point 4. While some are defecting (see below), the high command cannot survive a change of power. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces cannot usher in a new regime that would continue its economic privileges.
6. Is this now an inter-communal war? Net yet. There are hints of small-scale communal killings but if and when such a blood bath begins you’ll know and it will be terrible indeed. This outcome might be avoidable but the situation is very dangerous.
7. Is Syria now in a civil war? This is beginning. Defectors from the military have formed a Free Syrian Army. A nine-member Military Council has been formed including five colonels. Note the lack of generals (see Point Four) and all of them appear to be Sunni Muslim Arabs (see Point Five). They say they are going to fight the regime and defend the populace. But from where will they get arms?
8. Will economic collapse bring down the regime? No. See Points 1, 4, and 5. Nobody is going to quit because they get hungry. This is a kill-or-be-killed situation.
9. Is Syria going to encourage a war against Israel? No. Historically, Middle Eastern dictatorships have provoked war against Israel to distract attention from problems at home. The most likely scenario would be a Hizballah-Israel war, as happened in 2006. But we’re past that point for the Syrian regime (though a radical Egypt might try this tactic after 2013.) In addition, Hizballah is trying to consolidate power in Lebanon and a war would be very much against its interests.
10. Who is the opposition leadership? Ah, that’s a very interesting question. The best-known group is the Syrian National Council (SNC). It has announced its 19-member leadership group which includes 15 Sunni Muslims, two Christians, and 2 Kurds. Note that there are no Alawites or Druze. The SNC has an advantage because it was assembled by the United States using the Islamist regime in Turkey.