08/01/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Will Syria Become Lebanon?

Despite inevitable differences in detail, the Arab Spring has so far produced comparable outcomes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt: elections leading to post-revolutionary governments. This pattern may not prevail in Syria, though, and post-Assad politics could be a whole lot messier, with the violence and turmoil continuing.

Let's start with the common denominator.

In Tunisia, the military sent President Ben Ali into exile in January 2011, enabling elections for a constituent assembly. The Islamic Ennahda party won the most seats and formed an interim coalition government in November.

In Libya, the anti-Gaddafi rebellion triumphed, thanks to a UN-authorized no-flight zone and, more so, the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. Parliamentary elections were held this summer but the Islamic parties failed to make a strong showing.

In Egypt, the military high command backed President Hosni Mubarak initially, but jettisoned him in February 2011 once it realized that the uprising could not be suppressed. It has since employed political machinations to safeguard its political privileges and economic empire and to ensure that the parliament and presidency, now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood following elections in late 2011 and this summer, are rendered as powerless as possible.

Now to Syria. The Obama administration, frustrated by three Security Council vetoes cast by China and Russia to shore up Assad's government, has basically abandoned hope for a UN-backed settlement starting with Assad's negotiated departure. Washington is now focused on bringing Assad down. So are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been supplying money and weapons to an increasingly effective, though still divided and outgunned, resistance. Turkey, too, is looking past Assad.

The assumption underlying this regime change strategy is that, while the specifics will differ, the Tunisia-Libya-Egypt precedent will hold in Syria, producing an interim government that keeps the country whole and paves the way for elections that determine the nature of the new Syrian state.

This may be how things unfold, but what's happening in Syria suggests that the country may experience a variation of the civil war that convulsed Lebanon between 1976 and 1990, leaving plenty of aftershocks. Some 100,000 people -- and perhaps more -- were killed as militias loyal to Maronite Christians, Palestinians, Sunnis, Shi'a and Druze waged war and Syria and Israel intervened to support their clients. The twists, turns and alliances were bewildering; but the killing and anarchy provided dismal constants.

If Assad falls -- it's hard to see how he can survive after the bloodbath he's perpetrated -- his fellow Alawites, the minority that dominates the regime, may not yield. Assad's armed forces and paramilitary thugs have killed thousands of civilians and abducted and tortured others with abandon. The Alawites thus have good reason to anticipate that the armed opposition, which is rooted in the Sunni majority, will settle scores -- and without mercy. The Alawites may retreat to their bastions in and around Latakia on the west coast to defend themselves against this eventuality. Sunni militias will attack these redoubts to exact revenge and to establish a central government that governs a unified Syria.

Syria's Christians have by and large stuck with Assad, not out of love, but because they are apprehensive that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will dominate the armed resistance, and increasingly so. Mounting evidence that al Qaeda has, for its own reasons, now joined the fight against Assad, along with an increasing number of foreign Islamist fighters, will doubtless heighten the Christians' nervousness. Self-preservation, fears about being tagged as collaborators, and fear that a government capable of protecting them will not soon emerge are among the motives that could lead them to emulate the Alawites, with whom they may make tactical alliances. Even though the Christians lack existing territorial enclaves, panic-driven population movements could reduce that disadvantage.

Syria's Kurds are the third group to watch. Though they lack a unified leadership (there is an array of parties), some already see the disarray as a chance to carve out an autonomous region in the northern areas they inhabit. Though independence is not realistic -- Turkey will not permit it -- some Syrian Kurdish groups may seek a state-within-a-state akin to what their Iraqi Kurdish compatriots have established and look to their Iraqi and Turkish co-nationals for help.

As for Syria's Sunni majority, one possibility is that its various militias bury their differences and work toward a smooth segue to an elected government. Another is that they turn on one another after the common foe has fallen and unity falls victim to doctrinal disputes over Syria's future. If there is internecine Sunni strife, it won't be solely a Syrian affair. Al Qaeda and other foreign militants, having entered the arena, won't leave quietly at that critical stage and will instead make tactical alliances with like-minded Syrian Sunni groups, while pursuing their own agendas, which will differ.

Then there are outside states with stakes in Syria, whose war is already internationalized.

The Turks don't want even an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria: they're worried enough about the ultimate plans of northern Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Ankara will use diplomatic means as its preferred means, working through the KRG (which is pragmatic because it depends heavily on Turkey for trade and solely as an export route for its oil), as it already is, to rein in the Syrian Kurds. But, as it has done on numerous occasions in northern Iraq, Turkey will also use military strikes if it looks like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the radical organization that has battled the Turkish state for decades to create an independent state in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, gains sanctuaries in northern Syria. Already, the Turks are worried that the Syrian Kurds have established proto-governments in the north, adjoining the Syrian-Turkish border, and that one Syrian Kurdish organization, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is providing bases to its PKK ally in return for support. Prime Minister Erdogan has warned that he won't stand by and watch.

Iran knows that the main aim of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both Persian Gulf Sunni monarchies, is to topple Assad, Tehran's closest ally. Tehran has already warned them to stop supplying the anti-Assad resistance and alluded to its obligations under the 2008 Syria-Iran defense pact. Iran could provide the Alawite forces with money, advisers and weapons; and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, could pitch in as well.

This scenario will leave the Israelis with a decision to make: stay out and wager that order emerges from chaos, producing an effective post-Assad government capable of securing Syria's chemical weapons, or intervene, as they did in Lebanon, at great cost in blood and treasure -- to the Lebanese above all.

Let's hope none of this happens. Hope is not, however, a policy. Yet what seems to define current American policy is precisely the hope that the Tunisia-Libya-Egypt pattern will emerge in Syria, too.