Syria: Use the Right Template
The problem with the Jasmine Revolution template is that it essentially says all Arabs are alike, all Arab nations are alike, all Arab revolutions are alike.
Tunisia essentially saw the apparat of the regime turn on the ruling family and their core of hard boys. The rulers fled. A few thousand hard boys relocated to Libya or Algeria. The core of the old regime is now negotiating with the other elements of civil society — unions, banned political parties, Islamists — on what comes next.
Egypt saw a regime that had lost the mandate of heaven fall. At the crunch the only regime loyalists were a few rich compradore types and the highest echelons on the military and police. The generals may have been with Mubarak but the poorly paid enlisted ranks and junior officers were not. Faced with this, the military as a caste chose to let Mubarak fall and assumed power. The military is now negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood — but to a much lesser extent with civil society elements — for a new structure in which the Brotherhood and Mubarak’s old political shell — revived as a front for the military and bureaucracy and financed by the compradores — will in some yet-to-be-determined way share power.
In Libya, Qaddafi is an aging despot with a shrinking base of support fighting a regional revolt in the east of his country. The bulk of the nation wishes nothing especially good on either set of combatants.
Yemen is the closest case to Syria. Closest but not the same. Yemen has an aging despot who has survived by juggling competing tribes, regions and political tendencies facing a perfect storm of all his potential opponents uniting against him. The regime has a hard core of armed support but has never had the strength to fight all the potential opponents at once. However, the key problem on regime change is the fate of that core of support. Saleh could go to comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia. The 100,000 or so of his hard core of supporters cannot and do not accept that they be thrown to the wolves while they still have guns and money to keep fighting on.
Syria’s president is the son of the former despot, called back from London when his father’s health faded. He assumed office when his father died but never his father’s monopoly of power. In this he is more like Batista in Cuba than his father or Saddam. Bashir is front man for a coalition of office holders, military/police/intelligence officers, kleptocrats and ethno-religious minorities who fear what a Sunni regime would do as payback. The opposition as a whole is more popular than the regime but no particular opposition party, leader or ideology is. In a totally free and fair election the regime would be one of the largest parties and might well win a one on one as people chose the lesser evil.
While there are many factions waiting in the wings here, in addition to the Ba’ath Party/Muslim Brotherhood dichotomy, consider that there are Brotherhood splinters, as well as Salafi groups, at least two armed communist factions, Kurdish groups, the SSNP, and regional militias that will pop up (e.g., the Druze).
The negotiations between the regime and opposition are further complicated by the bald fact that neither side fully controls its more violent members. Many armed regime supporters would prefer civil war to an end to the regime. They lack the funds and foreign passports to flee. This is of course egged on from Tehran. In reverse, the Saudis — and perhaps Baghdad and the US — are sending arms to the most violent and least stable among the Islamists, the same as happened during the last crisis of the regime. A Syrian civil war would be a disaster but the train is starting to leave the station. Once the army fractures and units begin to fire on each other this has the capacity to spill over borders quite quickly. Syria has many Iraqi refugees who engaged in armed rebellion or liberation struggle before fleeing to Syria. Lebanon may not wish civil war but their armed factions have blundered before. The Saudis and Iranians may think they are conducting another theater of their shadow war (see Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain for current fronts) but neither has ever proven very good at weighing risks.
A Syrian civil war plunges Lebanon and Jordan into civil war pretty much within days — possibly the Palestinian Authority as well. This would be far more destabilizing than the Iraq War. Add it the fact that there’s a border with Turkey and that even Egypt and Israel will likely get some spillover. In terms of refugees, one can easily row from the port of Latakia to Cyprus, or the European Union.